Rabid reaction

Michael Oman-Reagan has been looking for sexism in Oxford Dictionaries entries. Specifically, he thinks that their example sentences perpetuate stereotypes.

He lists six entries that trouble him. I have no idea whether these are cherry-picked or representative, but take a look and see what you think. Carolyn Cox has further discussion.

The most interesting of Oman-Reagan’s six is Oxford’s entry on “rabid” and the example it gives: “a rabid feminist”.

He complained to Oxford on Twitter. They replied, saying that “’rabid’ isn’t always negative”.

Is this true?

Their full definition says:

Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: ‘a rabid feminist’

“Extreme” and “fanatical” do kind of sound bad.

They give three other examples of the word’s use:

There’re idiots and rabid fanatics on both sides.

In the process, he has been hailed as a prescient genius and dismissed as a rabid extremist, but almost always recognised as a novelist of great power and originality.

Really, the rabid support for gun ownership stateside comes from an ideal that the people should be able to, if necessary, mount an armed resistance to a tyrannical and corrupt government for the purposes of revolution.

The first and second are clearly negative. The third is unclear: the speaker sympathises with these rabid supporters, but whether he or she thinks their support goes too far I can’t tell.

Here are Oxford’s synonyms for “rabid”:

Extreme, fanatical, overzealous, over-enthusiastic, extremist, violent, maniacal, wild, passionate, fervent, diehard, uncompromising, intolerant, unreasonable, illiberal, bigoted, prejudiced, biased, partisan, one-sided

Most of these are obviously bad. Each of the others can be bad or not, depending on context. And the thing about the simple phrase “a rabid feminist” is that there is no context.

How does that phrase get used in real life?

I looked at GLOWBE, a corpus of online usage. It records the text from 1.8 million web pages, totalling 1.9 billion words.

“Rabid feminist” appears 11 times. Here they are:

  1. to your fellow man (or “woman” to those of you that are rabid feminist, or get caught up in your on smug polictical correctness bullshit).
  2. they’d stop asking me why I haven’t and stop assuming I’m a rabid feminist who wants to get rid of men
  3. nearly missed out on becoming a mother – thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman
  4. This is certainly a stellar example of the rabid feminist claim of “everything he can do, we can do BETTER”.
  5. of the patriarchal old testament part of you displayed tonight.And no I am not a rabid feminist just more wordly and recognise that the vast majority of Mothers want the best
  6. none is required. I am not debating anyone here, least of all some rabid feminist.
  7. It is a breath of fresh air after over thirty-odd years of rabid feminist propaganda.
  8. mindless unions, NPR, a deceitful and liberal journalistic community, a well-organized and rabid feminist lobby, an essentially cowardly church community afraid to speak out
  9. inner sigh. I do not wish to offend with an open demonstration of the rabid feminist within, because there lies the way to exclusion from professional life.
  10. As an aside I am a feminist, have always been a feminist and at one time was a rabid feminist.
  11. when deciding on what college my daughter should go to, her best friend’s mother — a rabid feminist, authored, PhD, who had “friends who are Polynesian” — said no way could her daughter go to AGGS: “too many brown faces “

Numbers 1–8, while showing a range of views, are clearly negative. Number 9 is kind of negative, but with rueful irony.

Number 10 I’m not sure about. It feels to me as if it means “actively campaigning”, which wouldn’t be negative. The preceding text (it’s a comment on a blog from 2008) goes: “Our not-so-bright defeated vice presidential candidate is already sniping at our president. She needs to stay in Alaska and look after her state and her houseful of children. As an aside I am a feminist…” To me that sounds a bit like “many of my best friends are black”. So I don’t know how to take this one.

Number 11 isn’t negative. It may even be positive.

(I searched GLOWBE for “rabid feminists” as well: four results, all negative.)

So the phrase seems to be mostly, but not always, negative.

There’s a dog that hasn’t barked yet, and it’s a rabid dog: the original meaning of the word.

The disease that causes fevered frothing and wild and violent behaviour is not something most of us talk about most days. Mostly when we say “rabid” we’re using the extended figurative sense. But we still know where the word came from, and its literal meaning strongly colours how we understand its figurative use.

You can see this link explicitly in some of GLOWBE’s results for “rabid” on its own:

Only rabid, foaming at the mouth liberals would believe such crap

Women like me fear being viewed as a rabid, slathering bitch.

Acting like an rabid animal

Let Pakistan swirl in their toxic terrorism they sponsered until they see that rabid dogs bite the hand that feed them

Out of GLOWBE’s first 100 results for “rabid” (excluding two that were about how to pronounce it), 11 are about rabies and 89 are figurative. Of those 89, 71 are clearly negative.

The remaining 18 are not obviously negative; they’re about wildly enthusiastic fans. For instance:

Some may find the rabid devotion of Rick Springfield’s fans perplexing

Because of the huge number of young, college age folks who were rabid Ron Paul fans.

I’m a rabid college basketball fan and a lover of odd numbers and bridges

It’s hard to tell from quotes like these where zeal becomes excessive zeal, so it’s hard to gauge the negativity or not.

The thing is, though, fandom comes across as irrational and excessive when it’s described as “rabid”, even if the intent is good-natured. That ties back to the literal meaning again. And while devotion to a pop star or basketball team may well be irrational, when you start talking about political and social attitudes in those terms, like “rabid feminist”, it becomes insulting.

It may be strictly true that “rabid” isn’t always negative, but it usually is. And its connotations are strongly negative. So it may be unwise to use it if that’s not the reaction you want.

Oxford Dictionaries point out that all their example sentences are “real examples of usage”. And there’s a disclaimer: “Opinions and views expressed in the usage examples are the views of the individuals concerned and are not endorsed by Oxford University Press.”

I’m here to write about words, but I’ll offer two tiny thoughts on the politics of this:

Dictionaries do help to set the cultural tone, whether they intend to or not. Their job is to describe the language neutrally but beyond that they should also be aware of how they come across. For example, I have a battered Oxford dictionary from 1969 on my shelf. It defines “jazz” as “syncopated music, & dance, of U.S. Negro origin”. Today, the Oxford website says jazz is “of black American origin”. The change is good and in no way diminishes the definition. And as for examples, even if a sentence isn’t theirs, they’ve still made the choice to use it.

If the source for the example isn’t given (as on the Oxford site), readers may not realise it’s a quote. They may well think the dictionary has created it to show what’s right. But if there’s a list of historical examples, with sources given (as in the full Oxford English Dictionary), that’s a different story.

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  • Lev  On January 25, 2016 at 11:23 am

    In the same dictionary, in all examples of “murder”, the culprit is male, and in all examples of “steal”, the culprit is female. Definitely sexist.

  • Noor Elhayat  On February 1, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Valuable information!
    I have a question in the side for you though, as editor and when away from your job, do you have this urge to correct people’s language when they speak or write like in social media?
    I appreciate your answer in advance!

    • Tom Freeman  On February 1, 2016 at 6:25 pm

      Hi Noor! No, I can just about manage to switch that bit of my brain off. I’m pretty likely to notice typos and things like that when I’m reading for pleasure, but if it’s a blog or a tweet or something like that then I won’t care – my own typing is terrible! And in conversation I’m not worried at all. I try not to be one of those people who interrupts to say “Actually, I think you mean…”

  • joescribe  On February 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    This post was worth it

  • yllama  On February 2, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    this is a good find…❤️☺️❤️

  • cragarblog  On February 5, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    The most insidious forms of prejudice in our society are those that are built into systems that most don’t even think about. As you offer here, dictionaries remain a prime source for the continuation of cultural bias.

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