Cambridge Dictionary updates definition of ‘woman’

woman – Feng Yu/Alamy

The Cambridge Dictionary has updated its definition of “woman” to include anyone who “identifies as female” regardless of gender at birth.

The online dictionary recently added a supplemental definition of “woman” that includes transgender people.

She now states that, in addition to definitions that include an “adult female human being,” a woman can also be “an adult who lives and identifies as female although she may be said to be of a different sex at birth.”

She gives the examples: “She was the first trans woman elected to national office” and “Mary is a female who was assigned male at birth.”

The dictionary editors made the changes after studying patterns of use of the word “woman” in society and concluded that the new definition is one English learners “should be aware of.”

However, the Cambridge Dictionary is not the first dictionary to change its definitions. In July, Merriam-Webster added a supplemental definition of “female” which defines the term as “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male.”

In response to updates to the Cambridge Dictionary definition, which were made in October, Dr Jane Hamlin, president of the Beaumont Society, a charity that supports transgender and non-binary people, said: ‘This is a good news. So much misinformation and garbage has been written about the definitions of “man” and “woman” lately, but these definitions are clear, concise, and correct. Congratulations to the Cambridge Dictionary team!”

However, Maya Forstater, executive director of campaign group, Sex Matters, said: “The primary dictionary definition remains adult human female and male. This is also the legal definition and one that most people understand.

“People have always used words in different ways and the dictionary reflects that.”

The Cambridge Dictionary has also updated its definition of “man”. In addition to definitions including “an adult male human being” and “the human race”, it now includes the definition: “an adult who lives and identifies as male even though he may be said to be of a different sex at birth.”

He also gives two examples: “Mark is a trans man (= a man who was said to be female when they were born)” and “their doctor encouraged them to live as a man for a while before undergoing the surgical transition.”

The Cambridge Dictionary was asked what prompted the updated definitions and when exactly they were changed.

A Cambridge Dictionary spokesperson said: “Our editors added this entry to the entry for ‘woman’ in October.

“They carefully studied the patterns of use of the word ‘woman’ and concluded that this definition is one English learners should be aware of to support their understanding of how the language is used. The first definition under the entry of female remains unchanged and continues to be “an adult female human being”.

“Our dictionaries are written for learners of English and are designed to help users understand English as it is currently used.

“They are compiled by analyzing a vast corpus of English texts (over two billion words in total) taken from all areas of writing and publishing, which allows us to see exactly how the language is being used.

“We regularly update our dictionary to reflect changes in the way English is used, based on data analysis of this corpus.”

The definition of “woman” has become increasingly controversial in recent years. In 2020 Harry Potter author JK Rowling was accused of being transphobic after she posted a tweet referencing a headline about “people who menstruate”.

In March this year, she also clashed with Labor Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, accusing him of misrepresenting the equality law after claiming that “trans women are women”.

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