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Words matter. Definitions matter

The Cambridge Dictionary updates the definition of “woman”


Words matter. Definitions matter

There has been much concern expressed about the recent decision of the editors of the Cambridge Dictionary to supplement the definition of woman as “an adult female human being” with “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”

It is for sure a disturbing development but it is also worth remembering that dictionaries are an interesting phenomenon. In part, they are prescriptive: they help to stabilize a word’s meaning by giving formal definitions of said word. But they are also descriptive, in that they reflect the way a word is used in various contexts. Thus, the Cambridge Dictionary also includes “a wife or female sexual partner” as an informal definition, though this seems to have provoked no outrage, either past or present, for the simple reason that it may not be an exhaustive answer to the question “What is a woman?” but nonetheless reflects a common cultural use of the term.

Other terms have changed their dictionary-defined meaning over time. “Tory,” for example, originally meant a dispossessed Irish outlaw, typically used as a pejorative. In the American War of Independence, it was used for those colonists who supported the British. Now it typically means a member or supporter of the British Conservative Party. Yes, it might still be used as a pejorative, but that is not necessarily so. And Tory as Irish outlaw no longer merits a reference in the Cambridge Dictionary because that usage has long since vanished.

Which brings us back to the new addition under “Woman.” It has a twofold significance. First, and at its most harmless it is a simple acknowledgment that there are those who now use the term “woman” to refer to a biological male who is convinced that his real self, the spooky denizen of the inner psychic realm, is a woman trapped in the wrong body. That’s the descriptive part, and, as such, the Cambridge Dictionary simply reflects the utter confusion about biological sex and gender that now proclaims itself as the truth within our society.

What is happening is not a merely semantic game or the demand that we deny reality. It is the assertion of power.

But second, as noted, a dictionary is not simply an exercise in descriptive semantics. It is also a prescriptive authority. If I want to know what a word means, I turn to a dictionary. By virtue of what it is, it makes a claim to stabilize meaning and to offer me truth. Had the Cambridge Dictionary indicated that the new definition was a colloquialism or, as in woman as wife or sexual partner, an informal convention of everyday conversation, there would really be no issue. That it stands unqualified makes it far more significant. It not only describes conventional usage of the term. It also prescribes such usage.

As such it is part of the struggle in which we now find ourselves. The Dictionary here is changing the very meaning of words themselves. Words and language are ceasing to be things that either describe the world or enable us to explain, interpret, or understand the world. Rather, words are becoming means of maintaining the power. They are the tools by which the powerful control interpretation.

Once “woman” is prescribed as a term for which biology is irrelevant, a certain philosophy of the world as pure social and linguistic construction is being enforced. And correct usage of the word is then not assessed by its conformity to reality, or even to convention, but rather by its conformity to the cultural power structures of the day. Thus, to reject the new definition of woman is not necessarily to query the veracity or integrity of the Dictionary. It is far more serious than that. It is to challenge the cultural power structures of which the dictionary is one manifestation. It’s a power-grab, but neither pure nor simple.

The same applies to pronoun policies in the workplace and to the ridiculous demand that we use the plural for singular individuals. What is happening is not a merely semantic game or the demand that we deny reality. It is the assertion of power. Speaking truth to power—real truth that reflects reality—is thus a term worth appropriating from the left. For it is in our speech, in our speaking, that the first line of resistance to this power-grab can be mounted.

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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