Language and inequality

The Royal Spanish Academy’s problem with ‘the weaker sex’

Online petition calls for term to be “eliminated” from leading dictionary of language

The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), the institution tasked with safeguarding the correct use of Spanish, announced at the beginning of March it would be revising its definition of the term ‘the weaker sex’ (sexo débil) in its Dictionary of the Spanish Language, which is currently given to mean “women in general” (conjunto de las mujeres). An RAE spokesperson confirmed to EL PAÍS that the change is expected to be made to the online version of the distinguished tome this December.

The Spanish Royal Academy in Madrid.
The Spanish Royal Academy in Madrid.JULIÁN ROJAS

The news coincides with a campaign launched by 18-year-old Sara Flores Romero on Change.org, which has collected 94,000 signatures in the past few days for a petition criticizing what she sees as endorsing sexist language.

According to the RAE, changing the explanation of the term has been on the cards since 2015, not long after the current 23rd edition went to press. Along with other words and expressions that have been gathered since 2015, it was due to be announced to the public when the dictionary was revised later this year.

The RAE does not get involved in deciding whether an expression is appropriate or not RAE spokesman

The RAE added that under no circumstance would the term be eliminated altogether, since its use is widespread, not only colloquially, but in literature. “The RAE does not get involved in deciding whether an expression is appropriate or not,” said the spokesperson.

The amended definition of the term “the weaker sex” will consist of an adjunct explaining it has disrespectful and discriminatory connotations. Meanwhile, the entry for “the stronger sex”, which is currently defined as an umbrella term for men, will add that it is often used ironically.

The campaign on Change.org – a platform which has nine million users in Spain and 140 million worldwide – was launched by Flores on February 21 under the title #yonosoyelsexodébil or #Iamnottheweakersex. A marketing and tourism student at Cadiz University, Huelva-born Flores began her petition after seeing a screen grab of the controversial definition on Instagram. “I felt indignant,” she explained, adding that she was overwhelmed by the response and that her friends and family have praised her clarity of vision.

Not content with the proposed amendments, Flores says she intends to keep fighting her corner. “What I would like to see is the elimination of the definition, so I am going to keep the petition going,” she says.

I believe these are definitions which should not exist simply to define women or men Online petitioner Sara Flores Romero

Meanwhile, Spanish best-selling author Soledad Puértolas, who has been an RAE member since 2010, says Flores’ interpretation of the “weaker sex” has prompted her to consider the connotations of the word ‘weak’, particularly for the younger generation, concluding that the RAE might want to examine this entry too. “I would like to ask her why she feels the word ‘weak’ is so negative,” she says. “As a woman, does she consider herself stronger than men? I would claim my weakness as a woman, which is not the same as being inferior.”

One of 350 launched in Spain on the social change platform each week, Flores’ petition was uploaded to Change.org in the run-up to International Women’s Day on March 8.

“It’s incredible that in this day and age, these sexist terms are still allowed to exist, particularly when it concerns an establishment as distinguished as the Royal Spanish Academy that declares itself “the guardian of the Spanish language”. I believe that these are definitions which should not exist simply to define women or men,” she argues on the site.

“As a woman, I am naturally offended,” she continues. “I believe it is offensive to all women and to all those who have fought for our rights. I think it’s outrageous that in 2017, people are still so blinkered. The more people who sign the petition (men and women), the more chance we have of the RAE reconsidering these kinds of definitions and doing something to get rid of them.”

This is not the first time the RAE has modified its definition of a word in keeping with changing times. In 2014 it noted that the use of ‘gypsy’ as a synonym for ‘trickster’ and a person who “manages to fool someone using cunning and lies” carried “offensive and discriminatory connotations.”

 English version by Heather Galloway.

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