Book Shelf

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE TRECCANI ENCYCLOPEDIA: ELIMINATING OFFENSIVE WORDS UNDER THE DEFINITION OF “WOMAN”

24/4/21
Giulia Degradi

If you’ve never looked at the word “woman” in the Treccani online dictionary, you may find yourself shocked. Did you know that you will find euphemisms such as “good woman,” and words like "whore," "bitch," "slut," and "servant," as synonyms? These expressions associated with the concept of women are a collection of derogatory, sexist examples and epithets, even going so far as "mondana," "passeggiatrice," and many more. 

     Such expressions are not only offensive, but reinforce negative and misogynistic stereotypes that objectify women and present them as inferior beings. This is even more dangerous because language shapes reality and influences how women are perceived and treated. Thus, keeping these terms in our vernacular cannot lead to better treatment of women.

     At the same time, a man is defined as a being “conscious and responsible for his acts," a "man of business," "of wit," "of the heart," and " of respect." The absence of words portraying women in such a positive way, like businesswoman or career woman, is conspicuous. Moreover, the absence in the definition of "man" of words such as "violent" or "gigolo" is a clear double standard.

     Dictionaries are educational tools that many of us reference on a regular basis, and Treccani is one of the most consulted in our schools, libraries, homes. It is also one of the most visible Italian linguistic sources. When first requested to modify these definitions in a more inclusive and less sexist way, Treccani responded that the request could not be accepted because the dictionary should record the evolution of language without censorship, in spite of the misogynistic imprint that a centuries-old, male-dominant culture has impressed on the idea of a woman. Even the Oxford dictionary responded similarly when confronted with the same issue, although they later had the courage to be self-critical and reexamine their platform.

     In an attempt to make Treccani reevaluate their decision, activist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi and other influential figureheads of Italian politics have asked the editors to modify the entry and make it less sexist and aligned with the true role of women in society. In their request, Giovanardi and the other women kindly ask the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, founded by Giovanni Treccani S.p.A., to eliminate expressly insulting words referring to women, and replace them with expressions representing women in a more modern and respectful way. 

     Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, once said that you become what you think. If our thoughts are what we are, we must take care of them, because they will turn into our words, actions, habits, and then our character. By defining women as whores and servants in the dictionary, society’s conception of women actually being these things is perpetuated. Those who work with words, like writers, journalists, and anyone in media have an even greater responsibility to be aware of the words they put into the world. While the request to Trecanni will not put an end to everyday sexism, it can contribute to a healthier vision of women and their role in today's society.