2. how to make meanings

This is the manuscript blog; new sections added every few days.
Best read in sequence so start with 1 and work your way through
enjoy, get mad, and comment!
~ dale

For most of us the meanings of words are found in dictionaries; but like the words themselves, dictionaries have been created! And when it comes to the meanings of words the reality is, they were made up by men.

In 1755, the first Dictionary was published by Samuel Johnson. He alone chose which words and meanings to include, and those that he selected and quoted from, came from his 500 favourite authors.

painting of man reading


Unfortunately 498 of his favourite authors were men.  Of the 117,00 entries in his dictionary, 16,998 were from men with public profiles – who were known in literary and powerful circles.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was a great achievement. It became the basis for the Oxford English Dictionary – 150 years later (again, almost quoting exclusively from the works of men). Both dictionaries have been a wonderful source of meanings for men, their view of the world and their place within it. 

old dictionary

Men were the public figures, the politicians, the generals, the academics, the philosophers and poets, the lawyers and doctors, the literary masters, the geniuses, the officials, the judges. They were the ones who had power and status and money. (Until the late 19th century, women weren’t even allowed to own property.)

Women weren’t allowed education, and understandably, men looked on women as dependents, as uninformed, as foolish and in need of discipline and guidance; they even thought learning made women unfit as wives and mothers. (Too many questions or too many criticisms – once women could read and write and encounter some alternatives!)

These views of men and about women were encoded in the quotes in the dictionary – and underpinned meanings in everyday usage then. And they persist to this day.

This is how  – without saying a word or performing a single act – women are defined as IN THE WRONG. Women are the negative reference group for men; while we are in the wrong – they don’t have to do anything to be superior and in the right; they just need to exist and speak English!

This isn’t the result of a conspiracy (although there have been a few); the dictionaries were put together at a time when it was possible to regard women as inferior. When their lives were dictated to by the status (and good will) of a man – father or husband; when women weren’t educated, when they couldn’t usually speak in a sophisticated manner about literature, politics, science or philosophy.

Because women weren’t members of any influential bodies, members of parliament, members of the professions, men had no opportunity to see in women  – the skills they valued in themselves.

The women didn’t have any money or financial independence – – they couldn’t do their own thing or walk away: there was no divorce (except for the very wealthy where it was more about property than the end of romance).

The view that men had of women as dependent, in need of protection, (and usually as temptresses or adulteresses) could probably have been justified on the basis that women were born that way – rather than created by their social circumstances.

IT WAS CLEAR TO EVERYONE THAT WOMEN WERENT EQUAL TO MEN: but the explanation then, was that it was meant to be that way. The inferiority of women was the order of nature – not the result of the restrictions placed on women by men. (There are of course men who still think this way – and dominate the airwaves!)

250 years after Samuel Johnson started it all with his favourite male authors, we are still using the words and the meanings that were entered in the dictionary, and which have remained there while ever men have dominated most of the public record and public space.

But in the past decades there has been a change as more women have a life outside the domestic realm; fewer women are financially dependent on men;  (in the USA, 40% of wives now earn more than their husbands). Women are approaching 60% of the university students and graduates – and the old meanings that put us in our place aren’t adequate or meaningful descriptions of our lives and loves and leisure any more.

To be equal we need an equal set of words that spring from women’s experience as workers, philosophers, judges, politicians, leaders, CEOs and IT gurus, entrepreneurs, decision makers, directors, town planners and small business owners etc etc.

As well as equal partners and parents.

Currently we don’t have the words that succinctly sum up how we feel; we are so often treated as wall-paper, as the audience, or even rendered invisible. Yet as soon as we start to explain what we think about this, and how it makes us feel – we ‘overtalk’.

We keep trying to describe something that men – and other women – may not have seen before, because there isn’t a word for it!  Without a word – the existence of what you are trying to name – is in doubt. And you get frustrated (as it is SO CLEAR TO YOU); you can be overemotional. Look foolish. (I know – I’ve been there often enough trying to explain to a man how the world looks from where I am, when he hasn’t ever seen the same view!)

The words we have inherited are a legacy from another age. And until we can get an equal number of positive words that are based on women’s experience (including how we see men who think and talk in the dark ages) we carry a heavy handicap that labels us as inferior and PLAIN WRONG.

Comments have been made that there is sexism in the English language.  That it is sexist to call a woman a bitch or a witch or a whore. But that is only the surface structure – that is only pointing to a few dirty words.

Sexism isn’t a sufficiently BIG word to encompass the subterranean meanings that diminish women as a gender and which we are obliged to use daily at the expense of our own independence.


  1. Lynne says

    Remember when I discovered that my ‘extra’ allowance as a teacher was being paid to a man ‘because he had a family to support’ while I had a child? I was seen as unfair and bitchy because I raised the issue. ‘ if it worries you’ said the Deputy headmaster, ‘go ask him for it back’. Who was in the wrong?

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