It’s a noun or verb or adjective, depending on the context, meaning, “having a very loud, high-pitched sound.”
Great. Now, use it in a sentence.
“The rising shrill of women’s voices...”
This is just one of many examples of gendered assumptions made on Google’s dictionary service, which appears at the top of a search page if a reader uses the site to find definitions, origins and language trends. It’s one of Google’s “instant results” features ― much like its calculator add-on or Olympic medal count, both appearing above results from other sites.
Other entries, collected by Kiah Nicholas and Georgia Patch under a campaign to “#redefinewomen,” include “conniving” (“a heartless and conniving woman”), “flighty” (“her mother was a flighty Southern belle”) and “promiscuous” (“she’s a wild, promiscuous, good-time girl”).
In an interview with Pedestrian, the pair commented, “We realized that definitions were reinforcing prejudices against women. We knew we had to do something.” So, they launched Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter accounts united under their hashtag, urging Google to revise its dictionary entries.
Google used to provide a dictionary service as its own sub-brand, much like Google Books and Google Translate. At that time, it was suspected that its definitions were culled from the Collins Birmingham University International Language Database, or the Oxford American College Dictionary. But, cross-referencing a few of Google’s example sentences with either dictionary yields mis-matched results. It’s likely that the current dictionary instant results are plucked from Google’s Knowledge Graph, a huge database of cross-referenced information the site began using in 2012.
Regardless of its source, Google fails where other dictionary services usually succeed. If you look up “shrill” in Oxford’s online service, you’ll find example sentences about male and female subjects, whistles, and alarm clocks. There’s no evidence of malicious gender bias present. Likewise with Merriam Webster, which offers “The mud-splattered bystanders were shrilling with outrage at the inconsiderate motorist” as an example.
But more traditional dictionaries make mistakes, too. Earlier this year, Michael Oman-Reagan tweeted at Oxford about its example for “rabid,” which was, “a rabid feminist.” Oman-Reagan shared more examples of gender disparity ― “research” belonged to men, while the female “psyche” was deemed unfathomable ― and Twitter was afire with rage and hurt. Oxford defended its choice, but eventually amended the examples to references to “rabid hometown fans,” and “a rabid ideologue.’
Nicholas and Patch rightly include more insidious examples of sexism in their roundup of example sentences; “sewing,” “housework” and “chore” are all attributed to women, upholding stereotypes about domesticity.
They may seem like harmless enough inclusions, but that’s the thing about small generalizations: they can pile up to form a big problem.