5 Fluctuating Forms of Gender-Specific Language

By Mark Nichol

The English language is riddled with suffixes that specify gender, and efforts to mirror the slow-but-sure improvement in gender equality are reflected in shifting usage in this area. Such progress, however, is inconsistent. Here’s where we stand with various treatments:

1. -ess

Words altered to include an -ess ending to specify reference to a woman are generally going by the wayside: Often, a female movie, television, or theater performer is identified as an actor (though performing-arts awards retain best-actress categories), whereas terms for female members of royalty such as princess and duchess, in keeping with the anachronistic survival of the concept, persist.

Likewise, there’s no reason to genderize host or waiter, or author or poet, but we hold on to enchantress, goddess, and mistress. (And, if we have any sense, we hold on to enchantresses, goddesses, and mistresses.) In addition, as you know, stewards and stewardesses were transformed into flight attendants long ago. (The U.S. Navy, by the way, no longer uses steward as an official term for an officers’ attendant.)

2. -e

English preserves a few terms derived from French in which an e is appended to the end of the masculine form of some words to refer to a woman, including fiancee and confidante. Conversely — and obscurely — a man who divorces his wife is a divorce (like the feminine form, pronounced “di-vor-say” and, in print, with an acute accent mark over the e).

3. -trix

Another French form, -trix, is obsolete when referring to a female aviator, but English preserves the form in dominatrix, even though one rarely refers to a dominator (not in polite company, anyway).

4. -ine and -ina

Hero applies to male and female do-gooders alike (and retiring heroine avoids the accidental misspelling as heroin). But what about those heroes of the US government, the drug czars and the energy czars and their ilk? (The word czar is the more modern Russian form — the older variant is tsar — of Caesar.) No president has appointed a female czar, but if that happened, would we refer to her as a czarina? Not likely, except in jocular usage.

5. -woman and -person

The same folks who bristle at being scolded when they refer to humankind as mankind will no doubt fuss about this next point, but don’t use the suffix -man unless you’re referring to a man: It’s not necessary to employ the cumbersome term chairperson to refer to a female presiding or administrative officer or the position itself, or to distinguish between a chairman and a chairwoman; just say chair. (No, chair is not just the word for a piece of furniture; it’s the time-honored term, on its own, for an elected or appointed position.)

Unfortunately, no such shortcut exists for referring to members of legislative bodies, but congresswoman and assemblywoman are no-brainers. The nonspecific terms congressmember and assemblymember are attested but fairly rare; the open forms (with Congress and Assembly capitalized) are more common. (“Member of Congress” is also frequently employed, but “member of the Assembly” is not.)

But what do you call a woman who likes to fish (other than, um, a great catch?). Fisherwoman may seem awkward, but that’s just because we’re not used to it yet. As is the case with chairwoman or congresswoman, it’s a matter of only one more small syllable inserted in an already lengthy word. If you’re a man who washes clothes for a living, do you want to be referred to as a washerwoman, just because that’s the dominant usage? By rejecting gender-neutral language, you’re subjecting half the population to the same indignity.

This isn’t political correctness run rampant; it’s inevitable — and inexorable — usage correction, part of the evolution of language (with the obligatory Neanderthal-like branch stubs on the evolutionary tree like waitron and waitperson as gender-neutral forms of waiter).

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20 Responses to “5 Fluctuating Forms of Gender-Specific Language”

  • Teaci

    Woman who likes fishing = angler!

  • Peter

    I thoroughly disagree.

    Grammatical gender is unrelated to biological sex. The idea that you have to “avoid” grammatical gender (as if somehow using the masculine “actor” everywhere makes it neuter!) to avoid “sexism” is itself inherently sexist.

  • Kathryn

    There is no entirely reliable solution to the issues of gender in nomenclature that will not offend at least some portion of the population. I was a member of the committee to revise the by-laws of our local bar association some years ago when the suggestion was made that we replace ” to promote the spirit of brotherhood” with “to promote the spirit of collegiality.” The youngest member of the committee objected strenuously to what he characterized as an attempt at the “graying” of the language. I had suggested that “brotherhood” was no longer entirely appropriate in an organization which was roughly 1/3 female; our (approximately 80 year old) MALE chair proposed collegiality (which he insisted on pronouncing with a hard g). “Collegial” was in fact a far more accurate description of the relationships which inhered–both then and in the past–between the members of the association than was brotherhood. The resistance to the elimination of unnecessary gender-specific terms can be every bit as hilariously silly as the insistence on replacing them.

  • Kathryn

    Oh, yeah. Not “fisherwomen,” but “fishers.” Not “washerman”, but “launderer.” Point being–there are in general words, already in existence, which can solve many quandaries over gender-specific nomenclature. Back off, think more broadly. Are there words for which there is no exsting gender-neutral substitute? Sure. But make sure you are dealing with one before you start stripping it.

  • Deborah H

    Thirty years ago, I worked as a drafter. It was the official government term. But no one knew what a drafter was then, and I doubt if anyone knows now. I was a draftsman, and called myself a draftsman then, as I do now.

    Trying to geld the word was clumsy and senseless.

  • Stephen

    Sorry, but you lost me when you said the survival of royalty was anachronistic. This is a big issue in countries that actually have monarchies, with strong opinions on both sides, but you just state it like a fact without any room for debate or interpretation. I’m going to stop here before I say something rude.

  • Rebecca

    Interesting discussion about ‘gender-specific’ language. It sounds more like being politically correct and not wanting to offend a reader.

  • Mary Hodges

    “But what do you call a woman who likes to fish (other than, um, a great catch?). Fisherwoman may seem awkward, but that’s just because we’re not used to it yet”

    If she’s fishing with a rod and line, then surely she is an “angler”.

    If she’s part of the crew of a trawler then what’s wrong with “fisher”?

    Incidentally British English has a term “fishwife” meaning a loud-voiced, coarse-mannered woman. Probably a reference to the women who gutted and cleaned fish their menfolk caught and who were considered to be coarse and raucous.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    Using angler is a good solution when appropriate (and, fortunately, angless was never an option), but fisher sounds truncated (and I’ve never heard a man referred to as such). Fisherwoman, though, may never catch on.

    Your mention of fishwife reminded me of a similar word with coarse connotations: fishmonger.

  • Kathryn

    Mark: “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.”

  • Mary Hodges

    Fishmonger? To me this just means someone who sells fish. I’m not aware of any other connotation. Is it perhaps an American usage?

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    Fishmonger is all but unknown in American English. It sounds to me like something out of a Shakespearean insult. But coarse is perhaps excessive; I should have written unglamorous.

  • Duncan

    Surely the existing ‘chair’ of a commitee, etc. should be referred to as the chairman or chairwoman as approriate? This removes any ambiguity. If we were looking for a person to chair, then we would be seeking a chairperson. To refer to a Mary Smith as the ‘chairperson’ seems wierd.

  • Mark Nichol

    Duncan:

    Yes, of course, chairman or chairwoman is appropriate when the gender of the person is known, though chair serves just as well. But otherwise, or when speaking of the office in general, a gender-neutral form is needed, and I recommend the short form in that case.

  • Peter Stockwell

    Language evolved for a reason. To substitute gender specific words for gender non specific words is just another example of lunatic political correctness. I agree with Duncan. In my view Chairman is good enough to cover both sexes, it is universally understood. If a woman really wants to be called a Chairwoman we will do so. But nobody in their right mind would call her a Chair.

  • Peter

    Yes, of course, chairman or chairwoman is appropriate when the gender of the person is known

    People have sex, words have gender. The two are not necessarily related. My favourite example being “woman” — which was masculine gender in Anglo-Saxon English.

  • Dale Emery

    To refer to members of the United States House of Representatives, try: Representative. It’s gender agnostic. And as a bonus, it’s more precise than “congressperson,” given that Senators are also members of Congress.

  • Peter

    And, BTW, on the “humankind” thing: people who want to use that word seem to think it’s more inclusive than “mankind”, but actually it’s the other way around! “Mankind” includes our pre-human hominid ancestors, other evolutionary branches (e.g., Neanderthal man), and, in science fiction, various alien races and even at least one machine (Data, from Star Trek TNG) are explicitly included within the definition of “man”, whereas “humankind” is restricted to, well, humans.

    Don’t use “humankind” when you mean “mankind” as a whole.

  • Lea

    One phrase I saw recently that cracked me up was ‘good sportspersonship” instead of “sportsmanship.” While some of the word evolutions are valid, things like this are taking it a little too far. When we become overly sensitive to an issue, like sexism, it actually makes us seem more sexist. These words aren’t meant to be offensive or discriminatory, they are simply part of our language, and forcing confusing changing isn’t going to help anyone. If changes do occur, they will do so naturally. Somehow I don’t see “sportspersonship” catching on.

  • venqax

    Agree with Peter 110 percent. What is truly OFFENSIVE is the ideas that:
    1) there is smoething wrong with being gender-specific (why INTNOG would there be?)

    and 2) that WE, or I specifically am expected to change my LANGUAGE to accomodate a political agenda I don’t even support, and in fact find silly, juvenile, adn wrongheaded.

    This isn’t “language evoltion” this is an attempt at totalitarian-type social engineering that would be exppected first from the likes of the DPRK and LAST by anyone who values individual rights and freedon.

    Yes, it is THAT serious an issue to attempt to dictate something like this. Saying an actress or hostess did something conveys information– that’s language’s purpose– and absolutely nothing implies that either is inferior to an actor or host. To imply that such terms are anachronistic is simply false– not a good thing for something posted on a site aimed at helping people increase their knowledge. It is merely wishful thinking presented with authority. Absolutley terrible.

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