Who can build a dictionary?

The case of the entries “patroa” and “mulher-solteira” on Dicionário inFormal as a contact space on knowledge production.

Robert Moura Sena Gomes · Robert Moura Sena Gomes is a master’s degree student and researcher in Linguistics at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and his research focuses on militant discourses. In his thesis, he analyzes the folk and the linguistic perceptions about gender-neutral Brazilian Portuguese.

For most people, their first (or possibly only) contact with a dictionary is as school children. Looking up words usually happens in language classes, when the dictionary is used to look up the meanings of words. However, life in society encourages new ways of production and circulation of dictionaries as well as other materials about language. The outcome is sometimes unpredictable.

In recent years, the case of the entries “patroa” (“female boss”) and “mulher-solteira” (“single woman”) at Google Dictionary got extensive media coverage. It has been criticized by Brazilian pop stars Anitta and Luisa Sonza, as stated in the news article by Rafael Miotto, on G1 portal: “Significados de ‘patroa’ e ‘mulher-solteira’ mudam no Google depois de críticas de Anitta e Luísa Sonza”. Before that, the Google Dictionary meaning for “patroa” was defined as “a male boss’ wife”. In other words, this definition establishes a submissive role, as if the only possible definition is tied to the woman’s relationship with a man. In this case, what makes a woman a “patroa” is her love, affection or submission towards the “patrão” (“male boss”), or even the roles that are assigned by the social constructs for women, such as housewives. When we analyze the entry for “patrão”, the Google Dictionary described its meaning as: “proprietário ou chefe de um estabelecimento privado comercial, industrial, agrícola ou de serviços, em relação aos seus subordinados; empregador” (“owner or boss of a private commercial business establishment; industrial, agricultural or services, in relation to his subordinates; employer”). In other words, unlike “patroa”, “patrão” is defined as someone with business connections and a company’s leading position. This definition, after Anitta and Luiza Sonza’s commentaries, was added to the entry of “patroa” as well.

In regards to the entry of “mulher-solteira”, the meaning was based on religious and sexist grounds, as a “prostituta, meretriz” (“prostitute, hooker”). Considering gender dynamics, it can be noticed that society relegates roles of submission towards men to women. When a dictionary defines “single woman” as “prostitute, hooker” the hold both religion and society have on women’s lives and freedom becomes obvious. On the other hand, men have been historically and socially incentivised to possess, to be whoever they want to; to be with whomever they please and to own whatever they want to, with no commitment or loving relationship.

Based on the case of “patroa” and “mulher-solteira” we may ask ourselves: how can we contribute to the dictionary terms (re)writing? One option is to do as Anitta and Luisa Sonza, questioning and exposing to society and/or participating directly in a dictionary’s production. By the way, have you ever heard of Dicionário inFormal (“inFormal Dictionary”)?

Dicionário inFormal is a good example of how we, as a community, have background knowledge and impressions about our language and how we can actively participate in the development of a dictionary, in addition to consulting on a term’s meaning. In Dicionário inFormal, anyone can suggest a meaning for any word. It is a space to build a different relationship with dictionaries: one that is practical, integrated and participative and goes beyond simply looking up the meaning of a word, as Sheila E. de Oliveira describes in her book “O dicionário informal e a relação do falante com a língua”.

The Dicionário inFormal can be viewed as a contact point between different types of knowledge, since anyone can submit new meanings or words. That is, anyone can create an entry – (a set of multiple meanings and examples in contexts that a word may be used). We are able to see people speaking and discussing their language.

Dicionário inFormal displays the name as well as the geolocation of anyone who submits a word’s meaning or example in a sentence. From a linguistic perspective, the display of this information is very rich because (1) it stems from the submitter’s and its community’s own use of the language, and (2) it considers the person’s geographic space, generating more rich and detailed knowledge.

Dicionário informal gives 5 different definitions for the entry “patroa”. The first is very similar to Google Dictionary’s definition. The second renders the term as “something a husband calls his wife”, as a way to name or to refer to the person to which he is married. The third meaning shows a sexual context to exemplify a possible use. The fourth meaning, “in regards to wife and woman” is also similar to the meaning criticized by Anitta and Luisa Sonza. Although it doesn’t tie its meaning to the role of a wife, the fourth definition instead addresses the role of a woman. It is important to state that Dicionário inFormal has “like” and “unlike” reactions. Anyone can vote if it is a good meaning, if it makes sense, if it is still current, and if it should be part of the language.

The other meanings define “patroa” as a person with a connection to business, “chefa de indústrias comércios empresas; estabelecimentos comerciais dona de tudo, mandante” (“industries’ boss, commercial’s boss, and companies’ boss, and commercial establishments’ boss; a woman who owns everything, principal”) and also as an “entrepreneurial person”, “dona de algo” (“woman who commands”) and who doesn’t depend on anyone. “Patroa” received the meaning of “a woman in charge”.

The term “mulher-solteira” in Dicionário inFormal is described in just one entry, as a woman that “isn’t married yet”. It shows no connection to prostitution, as was described in Google’s dictionary.

The cases that have been presented here, in particular those from Dicionário inFormal, are important to make people question how they can actively participate in dictionary building.

They can join the process by questioning the meanings of terms and, most of the time, its social constructions that have been impressed onto them throughout history. That is, meanings that induce and increase violent, sexist, oppressive, and old-fashioned discourse. We can actively participate in submitting new entries and meanings and by doing that we are able to build a more fair society in every context. We can do so by privileging spaces and materials that convey knowledge about language and through language. These seemingly small actions also bring up all linguistic knowledge that people have about their language, even without knowing it.


MIOTTO, Rafael. Significados de ‘patroa’ e ‘mulher-solteira’ mudam no Google depois de críticas de Anitta e Luísa Sonza. G1, 2020. Disponível em: <https://g1.globo.com/economia/tecnologia/noticia/2020/09/18/significados-de-patroa-e-mulher-solteira-mudam-no-google-depois-de-criticas-de-anitta-e-luisa-sonza.ghtml>. Acesso em: 4 de dezembro de 2021. Seção Tecnologia.

OLIVEIRA, Sheila Elias de. O DICIONÁRIO INFORMAL E A RELAÇÃO DO FALANTE COM A LÍNGUA. Revista da Anpoll, [S. l.], v. 1, n. 37, p. 262–272, 2014. DOI: 10.18309/anp.v1i37.784. Disponível em: https://anpoll.emnuvens.com.br/revista/article/view/784. Acesso em: 4 de dezembro de 2021.

MULHER SOLTEIRA. In: Dicionário inFormal. Brasil, 2009. Disponível em: <https://www.dicionarioinformal.com.br/mulher%20solteira/>. Acesso em 10 de fevereiro de 2022.

PATROA. In: Dicionário inFormal. Brasil, 2009. Disponível em: <https://www.dicionarioinformal.com.br/patroa/>. Acesso em 10 de fevereiro de 2022.