Essex girls have long been derided over a supposed reputation for crass taste and low morals. The time has come to fight back … and the county’s young women have scored a major victory.
The Oxford University Press (OUP) has agreed to remove a “very offensive” definition of the term from one of its dictionaries following a campaign to change the image of Essex.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, designed for foreign language students learning English, defines “Essex girl” as a “name used especially in jokes to refer to a type of young woman who is not intelligent, dresses badly, talks in a loud and ugly way and is very willing to have sex”.
The Essex Girls Liberation Front, founded by Syd Moore, the novelist, has been campaigning to get the entry removed. The OUP, which also publishes the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), bowed to the pressure, saying that although it was useful for foreign language students to understand commonly used stereotypes the term would be deleted from future editions.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “Essex girl” as “a type of young woman who is not intelligent, dresses badly, talks in a loud and ugly way and is very willing to have sex.”
In the past the OUP has refused to remove the term from the main dictionary, the OED, its core database, saying “nothing is ever taken out of the OED” because “it’s a historical dictionary”. The OUP explained: “Definitions can change but an entry will never come out.”
The OED defines the term as: “Essex girl n. [after Essex man n.] Brit. derogatory a contemptuous term applied (usu. joc.) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.”
The success of the liberation front comes as a series of other projects emerging from the county tries to banish the stereotype, though they are not helped by the reality TV show The Only Way is Essex.
One of the campaigns, Snapping the Stiletto, has received a lottery grant of $267,307 to spread its message that the “Essex girl” image does not represent the county. Supporters include Penny Lancaster and Dame Helen Mirren. Anne Wafula Strike, the Paralympic wheelchair racer, is also helping to promote the county from her base in Harlow.
Essex’s tourism body is joining the fight. It released a short film, This Is Essex, last month that shows residents bucking the image.
Moore said that she started the liberation front after she made a reference to Essex girls while speaking at a multinational conference on International Women’s Day. “They all laughed,” she said. “Women from the Congo had heard of the Essex girl. I thought: it’s time to get rid of this once and for all.”
The campaign group believes that there is room for The Only Way is Essex, as long as people realize that it is not representative of the whole county.
“Women from the Congo had heard of the Essex girl. I thought: it’s time to get rid of this once and for all.”
Snapping the Stiletto is calling for the public to suggest the names of women from Essex whose stories they can share, having previously organized shows that included shoes donated by Lancaster, the model from Chelmsford, and Dame Helen, the acclaimed actress who grew up in Southend-on-Sea.
Kayleigh Boyle, 32, project manager for the group, said that the image of high heels and white handbags dated from the 1980s, when Simon Heffer, the Essex-born political journalist, coined the term “Essex man” to identify a new type of voter: “Young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren.”
The newly defined men, key to Margaret Thatcher’s popularity, were matched by women who traveled into London to work and spend their money. Their hardworking, hard-playing characteristics led to them becoming the butt of jokes.
Ms Boyle said that it was more important to redefine Essex girls than stamp out the term. She said: “There’s a conflict between people who are proud of being an Essex girl because of the positive connotations [of confidence and being up for a laugh] and people who never want to hear it again.”
She said that some of the characteristics were fair. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking care of your personal appearance,” she said. “If they are proud of being an Essex girl then they’re welcome to keep using it.”
The OUP change came after Collins English Dictionary altered its definition last year to: “A characterisation of a young woman from the Essex area, supposed as being materialistic and lacking in taste.”
Jack Malvern is a longtime reporter for The Times of London