The gap between what people think the word “feminism” means and what the dictionary says it means was recently illustrated in this poll from YouGov. Detailed crosstabs on these specific questions may be found on pages 35-37 of the full report. For the sake of illustration, I’m going to graph out the answers from female respondents only:
33. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not?
35. One dictionary definition of a feminist is someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. As you think about that definition, do you think of yourself as a feminist or not?
The percentages are substantively flipped around by the introduction of dictionary feminism, with 65% of women answering in the negative prior to considering the formal definition, and 69% answering in the affirmative thereafter. From where I’m sitting, this means that the dictionary has failed to capture part of the meaning of the term as it is generally understood. Language is usage, after all, and dictionaries are at their best when they function as descriptive repositories of how people actually use the words defined therein, rather than providing aspirational prescriptions.
As to the nature of the gap between “feminism” as reported in the dictionary and as generally understood by native speakers of (American) English, I’m somewhat at a loss. My friend John Bullock has a working theory, though, which he managed to convey on Twitter in only six panels:
— John Bullock (@beagrie) November 17, 2014
What do you think the dictionary ought to say?