What is an Essex girl?
What is an Essex girl? This question might make little sense to those who aren’t au fait with English geography (for those people: Essex is a county in the South East of the country) but its application has more to do with British culture of the 1990s than with pointing at a map. The term and its definition have hit the headlines this week, and the discussion raises some interesting questions about how we create our dictionaries.
Essex girl in the OED
Juliet and Natasha at The Mother Hub got in touch with us recently to let us know about a campaign they were organizing around the term Essex girl, specifically noting the definition found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):
[British derogatory] a contemptuous term applied (usually jocularly) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.
This definition was added to the OED in 1997, and is echoed in a similar entry in our dictionary of current English. The current earliest evidence cited in the OED is from 1991, though the source of origin (The Essex Girl Jokebook) suggests that the term must already have been at least partly established in British English parlance. Like the similarly derogatory Essex man, the term draws on stereotypes that came in to existence in the late 20th century although we don’t know the exact origins. Understandably, this is not an association that Juliet and Natasha want attached to their home county. Why is it there, and how did Essex girl get this definition?
Why is it there?
For any word or phrase to be added to the OED, there has to be a body of evidence that shows our editors sustained usage over time. This evidence comes for a variety of sources including digital corpora that store millions of sentences of written English from all over the world. Sources include newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, emails, and Internet message boards, and these corpora were used to craft the original definition.
Our role is always ‘descriptive not prescriptive’: Oxford Dictionaries describe language as it is used, rather than seeking to determine how it should be used. For that reason, our dictionaries include all types of language, including derogatory and offensive terms, never imposing editorial opinion or judgement. A word being derogatory or offensive is not grounds to exclude it, though these labels appear alongside dictionary entries where appropriate.
Use of Essex girl doesn’t appear to be diminishing – though bare stats are unable to distinguish between examples which imply some sort of stereotype and those which simply mean ‘a girl from Essex’. More tellingly, the commonly associated phrase Essex girl joke has had a significant decline recently, from its peak in the 90s and early 2000s.
Essex girl, though originating in the 1990s, has taken on an extra lease of life with the start of The Only Way is Essex (often abbreviated to TOWIE), a TV show which has been on air since 2010. The popularity of this programme and its stars may help account for the rise in frequency of certain collocates of Essex girl (words which are found alongside Essex girl most often) including bubbly, glamorous, lovable, confident, cheeky, and feisty, as well as adjectives relating to style and fashion: there certainly seems to be evidence gathering that the usage of Essex girl might be shifting.
The future of Essex girls?
While Oxford Dictionaries would never change a definition in response to a petition alone, as that would undermine our editorial policy, we are grateful to The Mother Hub for raising this issue. When new entries are drafted, all available evidence will be taken into account – but the only way to ensure that a dictionary definition is changed is to bring about change in the way the word is used. That is, language change brings about dictionary change, rather than the other way around. We welcome any debate about language, and will watch with interest the #IAmAnEssexGirl initiative that Natasha and Juliet have started – we will continue to monitor the corpora and, if the way Essex girl is used as a term changes, then our dictionaries will certainly reflect that in any future update.