Oxford apologizes for ‘flippant’ tweet about ‘rabid feminist’

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word “rabid”? Is it a rabid animal? Rabid enthusiasm? Or perhaps a rabid feminist?

Last Wednesday, Michael Oman-Reagan, a doctoral candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland, tweeted at Oxford University Press, which publishes Oxford Dictionaries. He expressed concern about their primary usage example for the word “rabid” which equated “fanaticism” with “feminism.”

There are several issues at play here. First, “rabid” is a term that, while neutral in its literal definition, has primarily negative connotations attached to it. Referring to “feminists” as “rabid” strongly implies that the speaker does not hold feminists in particularly high regard. 

“The image of the ‘rabid feminist’ is one conjured and promoted most often by people who don’t like feminists,” wrote poet and author Nordette Adams in a blog post about Oxford’s use of the term. Adams’s post was written a year and a half ago, suggesting that Oxford has been relying on this particular usage example for quite some time.

The second issue is that Oxford is the standard dictionary used by Apple’s operating system, making its definitions and usage examples highly visible and prominent. “Anyone using a Mac, an iPad, or iPhone will get definitions from this dictionary,” Oman-Reagan wrote in a blog post on Medium. “So why is it filled with explicitly sexist usage examples?”

Oxford replied to Oman-Reagan’s concern the next day, defending its usage example with a bit of snark.

The company continued by tweeting that the negative connotations associated with “rabid” do not reflect a full understanding of the word. 

The above tweet also links to Oxford’s help page on example sentences, which explains that all of the usage example used on the site “are real examples of usage …taken from a huge variety of different sources.” The page also includes a disclaimer that “[o]pinions and views expressed in the usage examples are the views of the individuals concerned and are not endorsed by Oxford University Press.”

Despite Oxford’s initial defense, Oman-Reagan and others on Twitter continued to take issue with the dictionary’s use of the “rabid feminists” example, culminating in the creation of the #OxfordSexism hashtag. 

On Saturday, however, Oxford finally offered an apology on Twitter in a series of four tweets, calling their initial response “flippant” and promising to “review” the primary usage example.

Kate Farquhar-Thomson, Oxford University Press’s Head of Publicity, expanded on that apology this morning, in an official statement emailed to the Daily Dot:

“On Friday we made some ill-judged comments on Twitter in response to a question about the example usage of the word ‘rabid’ on oxforddictionaries.com. We apologise for the offence that these comments caused. The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press. That said, we are now reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage.”

For a full account of the discussion sparked by Oman-Reagan’s tweet to Oxford, musician Megan Lynch has created a comprehensive record on Storify.

Image via Ali from Riyadh/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Carrie Nelson

Carrie Nelson

Carrie Nelson is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Nelson’s reporting for the Daily Dot focused on LGBTQ issues, feminism, and internet culture.