Asexuality has become increasingly widely used and understood over the last twenty years. The Oxford English Dictionary has recognised this by including ‘asexual’ in its latest update.
English is a constantly evolving, living, language. The lack of a central authority controlling the recognition of ‘proper’ English leads to confusion sometimes as to the meaning of new words. The correct usage of some words, and the status of some words as words, remains a source of great debate. Equally, this makes English a wonderfully adaptive and responsive language that can quickly change to accomodate new ideas and expressions. Thousands of new words enter the language every year as human experience continues to broaden.
However, it can sometimes take a while for the dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopaedias that some people consider the gatekeepers of ‘proper’ English to keep up. The growth of Rainbow communities, including the asexual community, in mainstream society in recent decades has led to hundreds, if not thousands, of new terms and labels for self-identification entering the lexicon. These terms have not, however, always made it into the dictionary. Where they have, these changes sometimes haven’t come for years after a word achieves mainstream usage.
One of the goals of this website, and our Trust, is to help provide an explanation of these terms for the very reason that dictionaries and other common reference sources don’t yet include a lot of the language around asexuality. A word doesn’t need to be in a dictionary to be a ‘real’ word. People are able to use whatever terms they want to describe themselves. However, words are most useful where they have generally agreed meanings amongst the people who use them, and where they can be used without having to be explained each time to others. Part of the reason people self-identify with labels is the ease of explaining their experiences to others using those words.
The inclusion of words in mainstream reference texts such as dictionaries helps increase the usefulness of these words, and empowers those who use them, by revealing them to a wider audience. It may also be said to help ‘legitimate’ the use of these words in the eyes of some more sceptical people – though, of course, individual experience is the source of legitimacy.
For these reasons, it’s exciting that the Oxford University Press has announced the inclusion of ‘asexual’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) alongside other Rainbow community terms following its March 2018 update.
Admittedly, for the last half century, the OED has been subject to criticism over the years for focusing too greatly on British English only, its claims to be the most authoritative source of definitions for the English language, and looking too much at literary and academic language at the expense of everyday usage. Equally however, the fact that so much criticism is focused on the OED compared to other dictionaries reflects the fact that the Dictionary is by far the most visible and well known dictionary in the English speaking world (outside of North America). In the law, where arguing over the meaning of words is many people’s whole job, the OED is the text that many judges will use (and sometimes deliberately misuse) on to determine the “meaning” business people or politicians intended to give a word in a law or contract.
The OED defines asexual as meaning “without sexual feelings or associations.” The term doesn’t expressly acknowledge the role of the word as part of asexual identity. However, its inclusion as part of an update of the ‘sex and romance’ category recognises the considerable inroads that asexuals have made into mainstream society since David Jay and the Asexuality Education and Visibility Network began to popularise the term in the early 2000s. Adding a definition of ‘asexual’ in this sense to the Dictionary moves it away from most other dictionaries’ only recognising the word as a description how some species reproduce.
Recognising some of the above issues in writing about the update, Jonathan Dent, a Senior Assistant Editor with the Dictionary, said that as part of the update “existing vocabulary has been elaborated, tested, found wanting, and augmented with new terms to cover an increasingly complex understanding of these topics. The range and varying register of these words reflects the central importance of sexuality and gender to much of human experience.” In another exciting development, Dent noted in exploring the sources that the Dictionary used in devising definitions for these words that the OED has made increasing use of Twitter to find “straightforward use by people choosing language which suits their own identity.” This reflects that institutions associated with traditional elite power structures are increasingly allowing historically marginalised and under-represented groups, such as asexuals, the important right of speaking for their experience in their own terms.
Most excitingly of all perhaps, Dent’s article indicates that this is not an isolated development. Now that the Dictionary has set out what he calls “the formal language” of romance and sexuality as a foundation, he says, it can now proceed to include more informal terms around asexuality and other Rainbow community terms and identities, referring back to the key ‘formal’ terms in those definitions. This indicates that as the Oxford University Press undertakes the gargantuan task of creating the 3rd edition of the OED, a task begun in 2000 and not expected to be done until 2037, asexuals and other members of the Rainbow community will hopefully find their experiences and everyday language reflected in the dictionary. This will further promote the visibility and understanding of its members’ experiences.