Tens of thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for Oxford University Press to change the "sexist" definition of "woman" in some of its dictionaries.

The petition, created by London women's rights advocate Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, points out that when you search the word woman online, sites powered by Oxford list synonyms such as "bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy and filly".

"These are the words which the Oxford's English Dictionary online tells us mean the same as woman," Ms Giovanardi wrote, according to news.com.au.

It also points to some "patronising" examples of common usage, which include "Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman" and "I told you to be home when I get home, little woman".

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Photo / Change.org
Photo / Change.org

"These examples show women as sex objects, subordinate and an irritation to men," Ms Giovanardi said.

OXFORD COULD HELP REDUCE ABUSE

By changing its definition of woman, Oxford University could help reframe how women are spoken about online, Ms Giovanardi argues.

"We can take a serious step towards reducing the harm (online abuse) is causing our young women and girls by looking at our language — and this starts with the dictionary," she said.

But Deborah Cameron, a language and communications professor at Oxford University, cautioned against "sanitising" dictionaries in the hope of making "a better world".

"Modern dictionaries are descriptive: Their purpose isn't to tell people how words should be used but rather to record how words actually are used by members of the relevant language community," she wrote in an online response to the petition.

"The dictionary is essentially a record of what the lexicographers have found out by analysing a large … corpus of authentic English texts, produced by many different writers over time."

While some racist and homophobic words have been culled from dictionaries and thesauruses in the past, rewriting the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a historical text meant for scholars, would be wrong, she argued.

"Different kinds of dictionaries serve different purposes and audiences: There are some cases where I think it would be wrong to sanitise the facts of usage and others where nothing important would be lost by being a bit more selective."

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OXFORD UNIVERSITY CONSIDERING UPDATE

Oxford University Press editors say the petition "raises some useful points for consideration" but have not yet promised a revision.

"If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory," Katherine Connor Martin, the dictionary's head of lexical content strategy said.

More than 29,000 people had signed Ms Giovanardi's petition as of Thursday morning.