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“What is a woman?”

Carl R. Trueman | Even our dictionaries are unclear now


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“What is a woman?”
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As the most perplexing and intractable question of the hour for our cultural elites seems to be “What is a woman?,” it is interesting to see that the Merriam Webster Dictionary has provided them with some help. This comes in the form of an addition to its definition of “girl,” one meaning of which we are now told is “a person whose gender identity is female.”

Now, such a definition is interesting because it is based in the notion of “gender identity,” a relatively new theoretical concept. But have no fear because the MWD has an entry for “gender identity” as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.” For the astute reader, of course, this raises the question of what is meant by male or female gender identity. Here again the MWD is eager to offer help: “male” is “having a gender identity that is the opposite of female” while female is “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male.” And so the game is up. Round and round and round it goes, and where it will stop, nobody knows. What we are dealing with is not an attempt at proper definition but a piece of self-referential, circular nonsense, the sort of thing that one can expect to happen when one tries to give meaning to a word or concept that is really nothing more than a piece of incoherent abstraction.

Yet in demonstrating this, Merriam Webster is doing society a service. The inability of a dictionary to give clear and coherent meaning to words such as “girl,” “male,” and “female” proves the point, that so much of contemporary identity politics is built upon rhetoric whose substance is provided simply by the volume with which it is shouted and the means of social control by which it is brutally enforced.

There is, however, a further question to be asked here: In offering these nonsensical definitions, is the MWD itself consciously complicit in promoting the incoherent pieties of contemporary progressive politics?

Is Merriam Webster consciously complicit in promoting the incoherent pieties of contemporary progressive politics?

There is an interesting discussion to be had over whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive when it comes to a word’s meaning. Do they instruct the reader on how a word should be used or do they merely describe the ways in which it is used? Even though many people tend to utilize dictionaries prescriptively, I am inclined to think that the accent in editorial policy should be on the latter, on the descriptive. In that case, the addition to the definition of “girl” and the circularity of the male-female definitions is understandable: people do use these words in the way described, regardless of whether such makes sense, and the MWD is correct to take note of that.

This, however, is where the case of the MWD becomes rather interesting. Take, for example, the definition of “woke”: “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Notice the use of the term “facts” here: to be woke is to be sensitive to political and social realities. That is a loaded value judgment on the term. And that such is the case is reinforced by the fact that nowhere in the definition is there any reference to the fact that “woke” is used as pejorative by those, left and right, John McWhorter and Ron DeSantis, who think it is a pernicious ideological construct. If the MWD is pursuing a descriptive agenda, that would surely be there. Its absence surely indicates political bias.

Given this, a less charitable read of the motivation for the new definition of “girl” and the incoherence of “male” and “female” seems in order. On these key words, MWD is no longer doing the work of a dictionary. On the contrary, it is engaged in that of political advocacy. Instead of bringing conceptual clarity to words, it is serving the interests of progressivism by reinforcing the fog and obfuscation that is proving to be a key tool in the destruction of public discourse in the west. And as those who control language effectively control thought, this is a most worrying development.


Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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