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PM's sexism rant prompts Australian dictionary rewrite

By Monica Attard, for CNN
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Fri October 19, 2012
  • Australia's Macquarie Dictionary redefines the word 'misogyny'
  • Follows debate over its true meaning after Prime Minister's speech to parliament
  • Julia Gillard accused the opposition leader of being sexist and a misogynist
  • Macquarie has amended its definition to include "entrenched prejudice against women"

Sydney (CNN) -- The Australian Macquarie Dictionary has re-ignited the so-called gender war that shone so brightly after the country's prime minister's blistering attack on sexism and misogyny in parliament earlier this month.

Julia Gillard's tirade, which drew global attention, and at the time of writing had been viewed almost two million times on You Tube, was directed at the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott.

"The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation," Gillard blared.

Abbott's National-Liberal Coalition took deep offense. Had the prime minister conflated or confused "sexism" and "misogyny," or worse, deliberately distorted the meaning of misogyny to score a resounding political point? Was Gillard seriously asserting that her opposite number held a pathological hatred of women, as most dictionaries define misogyny?

For the Coalition, it seemed a bit rich that the prime minister saw misogyny in Abbott but not in one of her own supporters, the former Speaker of the House who resigned in disgrace following SMS texts widely viewed as meeting the dictionary definition of misogyny.

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Into the fray weighed Australia's leading dictionary.

Editor Sue Butler surprised the nation Wednesday by declaring Macquarie Dictionary would alter its definition of misogyny, closer to the conflated version used by the prime minister.

In its next published edition, the dictionary's editors said the word would be defined as both the "hatred of women" and "entrenched prejudice against women."

Butler said Macquarie Dictionary had decided that for the past 20 or 30 years, "misogyny" had taken on wider meaning, particularly in feminist discourse and that with changed usage should come a changed definition.

"You're not really saying they [misogynists] have a pathological sickness, that they should be on a psychiatrist's couch discussing their early relations with their mother or anything like that," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

"They merely have what we think of as sexism, an entrenched prejudice against women," she added.

And so, Butler, who said she sees herself as the "person with the mop and the broom and the bucket who's cleaning up the language after the party's over," decided that after this "fairly big party," the word misogyny needed mopping.

Abbott has refused to buy into the debate, dismissing the issue as the latest outbreak of the "politics of smear."

But the decision has divided Australians.

As "Ron 1966," a reader of the ABC website, put it: "This is just ludicrous! A prominent figure misuses a word -- and gets embarrassingly caught out for doing so by anyone who understands the English language or who can read a dictionary -- and so the Australian Dictionary decides to redefine the word to match the prominent person's intended meaning. ...Is the Macquarie Dictionary also going to redefine 'misandry', or is it only accusatory and inflammatory words used by women against men that need to have their definition broadened to save embarrassment?"

For the record, Macquarie has said that it's also considering redefining "misandry," which it says currently covers "entrenched prejudice rather than hatred."

Even for those who applauded Gillard's speech, the dictionary's move seemed odd and unhelpful.

You're not really saying they [misogynists] have a pathological sickness... They merely have what we think of as sexism, an entrenched prejudice against women.
Sue Butler, Macquarie Dictionary

Comedian and columnist Corinne Grant said the debate over dictionary definitions was "reductive and pointless." She said she thought questioning the prime minister's use of the word misogyny detracted from what she said was Gillard's triumph -- calling out sexism -- and diminished the speech to a whine.

"... if the only way to have any kind of debate about gender in this country is to play the dictionary card, we ask Macquarie to change the definition of complaining to 'women defending their right to take part in public and private life without being ridiculed, negated or abused on the basis of their gender.'"

Grant found an army of supporters. One of them wrote: "It is obvious that many males and alas females can't accept the idea that the behavior the prime minister called out is misogynistic. Much easier for their conscience that the word be attacked as the wrong word than face the truth of the situation."

One female who believes the new definition of misogyny is silly is prominent Australian Financial Review columnist Jennifer Hewett who wrote: "He (Abbott) is now just to be officially accused of exhibiting entrenched prejudice rather than having a "visceral hatred'' of half the world's population. It must be like the 2012 version of a mortal as opposed to a venal sin. Guilty as charged, apparently," she wrote.

Hewett continued: "What is even more astonishing though is how so much of the feverish argument has seamlessly managed to equate Julia Gillard's attack on Tony Abbott into a general and principled assault on the evils of sexism or misogyny, however defined."

The thing about fevers is that they can be catchy.

Following the Macquarie Dictionary decision, the U.S. dictionary Merriam-Webster has said it is closely following developments in Australia.

Merriam-Webster associate editor Kory Stamper told The Australian newspaper (itself, experiencing fever at the change of definition): "A quick review of our citational evidence shows that 'misogyny' has been used to refer to a very broad range of behaviors, attitudes, policies, and so on .... no dictionary definition is set in stone. We will continue to gather evidence of the word 'misogyny' in use, and compare our definition against that use."

Watch out Mitt Romney, who like Abbott, is trying to mend his image with female voters, after his statement in the second U.S. Presidential debate that he'd been brought "whole binders full of women" by women's groups after he issued a plea for qualified women to work in his Massachusetts government.

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