Essex girl (noun), Brit. derogatory.
A contemptuous term applied (usu. joc.) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.

— The Oxford English Dictionary

Essex girl (noun), Derogatory, informal.
A young working class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous.

— Collins Dictionary

A campaign to remove, or make obsolete, dictionary definitions of ‘Essex girl’ was launched earlier this year, arguing that:

“The danger of people seeing it there in print, validated by an official and trusted institution, is that it almost justifies its usage in both everyday conversation and the media. In fact it almost justifies the belief that every woman from Essex fits this definition.”

The problem for dictionary-makers is that the definitions are accurate. Not because they correctly describe women from Essex but because they are – currently – what people mean when they use the phrase in a derogatory manner. The job of a dictionary is to list the words we use and explain what we mean by them, dispassionately and free of any judgement about how ‘good or bad’ the word is. At least that’s the response of dictionary writers and editors to criticism like this.

I agreed with them when I read popular news articles about the debate. To my mind, there wasn’t really a debate and I simply disagreed with the campaign. You can’t change the meaning of a word by editing the dictionary. You need to influence people to think of the word differently so that the meaning evolves and changes, which will then be recorded by dictionaries. And, to be fair, the campaigners are taking this approach too, championing positive stories of #IAmAnEssexGirl on social media.

Since then I’ve been reading up on the world of lexicography (dictionary-making) and it’s utterly fascinating. I’ve taken the humble dictionary for granted my whole life. Almost every home still has one, despite the rise of Google and Wikipedia. My opinion on this particular debate hasn’t changed, but I have learnt that our view of dictionaries as dispassionate reporters of the language is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The changing goals of dictionary-makers through history

A little terminology first. Do you think a dictionary should:

  1. list the words that people use and explain what people mean when they use them, or
  2. tell you what words and phrases, spellings and grammatical forms should or shouldn’t be used?

The former would be a descriptive dictionary and the latter a prescriptive one. Almost no dictionary is purely descriptive or prescriptive. Most contain elements of both description and prescription, so think of descriptive to prescriptive as a scale, with all dictionaries sitting somewhere along it. Most will answer – at least to some extent – both questions above.

Dictionaries have existed for around 4,000 years and for much of that time they were far more prescriptive than they are now. During the 17th to 19th centuries, members of the language academies that produced dictionaries saw themselves as guardians of the language. The focus was on good and bad usage, acceptable and unacceptable words and meanings. Most importantly, there was a view among lexicographers that they could influence language change – that they had the power to hold back change they saw as negative by telling people that a word shouldn’t be used.

During the 19th century attitudes started to shift. Franz Passow, a German scholar and lexicographer, voiced a new view: the story of a word and the way its meaning has changed is revealed by looking at how it’s been used over time, and the lexicographer’s role is to be a neutral observer of that history, recording the facts objectively. Other scholars then developed the view that the evidence of language use was more important than a minority view on what that use should be. This movement led to a significant shift towards dictionaries being more descriptive.

“Dictionary: A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.”

Anti-prescriptive sentiment in the subversive The Devil’s Dictionary (Bierce, 1911)

The view that the role of the dictionary was to describe – not control – the language stuck, and modern dictionaries are much more descriptive than their historical counterparts.

“It is descriptive authority of this kind which likewise tends to inform the working of modern lexicography. Entries are based on careful analysis of evidence, providing authoritative – and objective – information on the realities of language in use.”

Mugglestone (2011)

In short, words are included if they’re being used. Dictionaries do still have an element of prescription though:

  • They’ll note common misspellings. If a dictionary was 100% descriptive, a common enough misspelling would be given its own entry. Noting a word as a misspelling is a warning to users to be careful not to use it.
  • Users are warned that a word may offend with insults being noted as “derogatory” or similar.
  • Users are alerted to words that should be avoided in formal English when they are noted as “slang” or “informal”.

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary describes its objective as follows:

“to provide up-to-date and accessible information on the vocabulary of contemporary English in a conveniently sized volume, together with sound practical advice on writing good English in everyday situations”

On a glance this may sound like a throwback to the 1700s, but there’s a crucial difference between the prescriptivism of modern dictionaries and those of a few hundred years ago. While a modern dictionary will give you some advice on best practice, this is based on established norms and doesn’t try to set or prevent new norms. Lexicographers look at the evidence of what society considers ‘good English’ and advise you on how to follow the current rules. If those rules change, they won’t decide whether to change their advice or not based on their own opinion – they’ll simply update the information.

Dictionaries as records of language change

Dictionaries are fascinating as a record of social history. Comparing entries for the same word over time shows the way that dictionaries “act as witness to change in both culture and language” (Mugglestone, 2011).

“a virulent swelling, a sore, not to be cured

Samuel Johnson’s bleak definition of ‘cancer’ in 1755 (emphasis added)

Language constantly changes. Lexicographers and linguists see change as neutral but the public at large tend to resist it. This is a regular source of tension between modern dictionary editors and their readers. The addition of slang and informal usages inevitably results in letters of complaint from those who mourn the loss of ‘proper English’. There are many who still want their lexicographers to be more like those of the 1700s.

Taboo and offensive words in dictionaries

I’ve often felt that humans are never more linguistically creative than when devising new slang words and insults for each other. This has created a headache for lexicographers for hundreds of years and is the other big area that brings them into conflict with the public.

Dictionary-makers were surprisingly liberal in their willingness to include offensive words in the early-modern period. It was only around the 18th century that censorship, in terms of words being excluded, really began. Words would be omitted from dictionaries for various reasons – let’s look at some examples.

Racially pejorative words

The word ‘nigger’ was first adopted in English in the 16th century and was a neutral, non-derogatory term for 200 years. That changed in the 18th century and today it is seen by most in English-speaking countries as an utterly unacceptable word to use. It, along with many other such offensive terms in American-English, was almost always omitted from American dictionaries in the 1960s and 70s.

Some research suggests this resulted from collective societal guilt which influenced the lexicographers behind the dictionaries. A dictionary’s descriptive objectiveness is only as infallible as the humans that do the writing and editing. In some cases, these words were included in British dictionaries before they made it into American dictionaries.


‘Fuck’ has been considered offensive ever since it entered the English language. It disappeared from dictionaries in 1795 and didn’t make it back into the Oxford English Dictionary until 1972. I was surprised at how late this was. The liberalisation of dictionaries in terms of including offensive terms lagged behind the shift towards descriptivism. Most dictionaries shifted their stated goals to increase the focus on descriptiveness decades before they started to include previously omitted words.

These were often still decisions based on moral judgement. The rationale for excluding words was generally along the lines of the word having no place in polite society.

The decision could also be commercial, certainly in the mid 20th century. Several countries banned the ‘worst’ swear-words in print and so a dictionary that included them may be banned from sale. In the US, dictionaries with any moderately offensive words wouldn’t be recommended by school boards for use in schools, sales to which were an important source of revenue.

Public discomfort with offensive terms in dictionaries

The ‘Essex girl’ campaign is only the latest in a long line of campaigns against dictionary words and definitions. In 1936, the Oxford English Dictionary was asked to explain why one definition of ‘Jew’ effectively meant ‘a cheat’, to which Oxford University Press’ response was:

“I should like to explain that our dictionaries aim at explaining actual usage and do not attempt to form moral judgements.”

In 1972 a man took legal action against the OUP in which he claimed that the definition was defamatory, but lost because he couldn’t prove that it referred to him personally – a prerequisite for a defamation case in English law.

There have been several campaigns in the US (none yet successful) to have ‘nigger’ removed or redefined and these are strikingly similar to the ‘Essex girl’ campaign. One that caught my eye proposed changing the definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary from “a black person, usu. taken to be offensive” to something along the lines of “a derogatory slur used to describe black people, usually by bigots”. I can understand the thinking behind it, but is it still a definition or has it moved into being a commentary on usage? Merriam-Webster didn’t change the definition but did more explicitly mark around 200 terms as derogatory in its next printing.

Descriptivism is here to stay. For now, at least.

Those who wish that dictionaries were preservers of ‘good’ language are fighting a losing battle.

“Striving for frankness in lexicography is now an established contemporary practice.”

Steiner, 1980, quoted in Bejoint, 1994

The modern trend for descriptivism shows no signs of changing and, personally, I’m glad. I love dictionaries but I don’t believe they have the power to either prevent or effect language change and so I don’t believe that censorship can be justified. After all, good old ‘fuck’ was excluded for almost 200 years and refused to die out.

The notation of ‘Essex girl’ as ‘derogatory’ is enough for me. It tells people that the term is insulting and, sadly, the definitions are accurate in that context. I am 100% behind the part of the campaign that aims to reclaim the phrase and make it mean something different. And I trust lexicographers to update the definition if we’re successful.


References and bibliography

Béjoint (1994) Modern Lexicography: An Introduction, Oxford University Press

Bierce (1911) The Devil’s Dictionary

Hitchings (2011) The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, John Murray Publishers

Mugglestone (2011) Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press

Svensen (2009) A Handbook of Lexicography: The Theory and Practice of Dictionary-Making, Cambridge University Press

Image credit: Pixabay