The out-of-date female -ess « Words, Phrases & Expressions – Glossophilia

Nowadays we tend to wince when we hear words like authoress, giantess, or sculptress. Even though they still hang around, female-specific words like actress and stewardess now seem PI (politically incorrect) or just downright sexist, and they’re fast going out of style. I mean, when was the last time you heard anyone introducing themselves as an editress? (Yes, that’s a word.) Especially as the notion of gender binarism itself is being challenged and eroded, along with its 2- and 3-letter pronouns, we’re moving steadily away from gender-specific vocabulary in our language. But what might surprise you is how many of these passé nouns still appear in modern and respectable dictionaries without a note or even a hint of how anachronistic (and dare I say misogynistic) these words now sound in the 21st century. For example, there’s a word* listed in the Oxford English Dictionary online with the definition “a woman addicted to or guilty of fornication”; it ends in ‘-ess’, and there’s no “rare”, “obsolete” or “archaic” note in sight to consign it to the rubbish-bin of linguistic history. Below is a list of specifically female nouns currently listed in the OED, along with their definitions and usage notes where applicable. I’ve italicized all those that have “a female xxx” as their definition. Try not to wince at the words themselves, their definitions, or when you look for that usage note and it simply isn’t there …

Interesting that there are so many of these words, and that many of them are no longer used.

Source: The out-of-date female -ess « Words, Phrases & Expressions « Glossophilia

10 thoughts on “The out-of-date female -ess « Words, Phrases & Expressions – Glossophilia

  1. That’s very surprising for a German. Not only that there are so many female-specific words in English, but also that they are considered “PI”.
    In Germany “gender studentresses” are working hard to use as many female-specific words as possible to overcome their “oppression”. Some even have started to add female-specific suffixes to words for things!
    Seems to be a good sign, that many people don’t have any real problems anymore.

    • That’s also true to a certain extent in France and Canada. For example, author = auteur. Some French or Canadians use the term auteure for women. (There are many other words where they use a similar suffix.)

      • And it reaches high levels of stupidity and ignorance on how words are formed… “Auteure” is a barbarism, plain and simple. It should be “autrice”, if you really want to create such a noun. But you don’t even need to, because in French, such terms are actually not “genfer-specific”. They describe an activity or a function, and a woman is “un auteur”, not “une autrice” or “une auteure”. But saying this, I will be misunderstood by the PC crowd.

  2. That’s very surprising for a German. Not only that there are so many female-specific words in English, but also that they are considered “PI”.
    In Germany “gender studentresses” are working hard to use as many female-specific words as possible to overcome their “oppression”. Some even have started to add female-specific suffixes to words for things!
    Seems to be a good sign, that many people don’t have any real problems anymore.

    • That’s also true to a certain extent in France and Canada. For example, author = auteur. Some French or Canadians use the term auteure for women. (There are many other words where they use a similar suffix.)

      • And it reaches high levels of stupidity and ignorance on how words are formed… “Auteure” is a barbarism, plain and simple. It should be “autrice”, if you really want to create such a noun. But you don’t even need to, because in French, such terms are actually not “genfer-specific”. They describe an activity or a function, and a woman is “un auteur”, not “une autrice” or “une auteure”. But saying this, I will be misunderstood by the PC crowd.

  3. Absolutely. It is somewhat surprising to me that English would consider this politically incorrect usage, as the exact opposite is true over here! In Quebec (and the rest of French Canada), if you don’t feminize usage (docteure, auteure, professeure, chercheure, etc.), you are using French in a sexist fashion. In fact, this is an easy way to recognize a French text written on the old continent (the French never do this).

    Here is the official policy of the Government of Quebec on the matter:

    “L’emploi du féminin n’est pas obligatoire en ce sens que l’omission des noms féminins ne constitue pas une erreur de vocabulaire ou de grammaire. Par contre, leur emploi est souhaité et encouragé si l’on veut rendre visible la présence des femmes dans les textes, et par là même, leur place dans la société.” (http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=4015)

    Quebec does, however, recognize that this particular usage is not universally employed by the French international community:

    http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=5158

    The French almost never feminize their profession names, which always sounded really weird to me. They will say things like “Madame le maire” instead of “Madame la mairesse”. But then again, the French never accentuate their capital letters either, which is even weirder… 😉 Just like the small differences in writing and pronunciation between English from the UK and North America (or Spanish from Spain and Latin America), we also have our little France-Quebec arguments regarding how things should be pronounced or written. 🙂

    This is quite an interesting perspective of gender usage perception between different populations and languages. One needs to be careful not to judge how other countries or populations might perceive and employ these feminine words.

    • This is not entirely absent in France, but it is quite rare. You do occasionally hear “Madame la mairesse,” and similar terms, but it’s not common.

  4. Absolutely. It is somewhat surprising to me that English would consider this politically incorrect usage, as the exact opposite is true over here! In Quebec (and the rest of French Canada), if you don’t feminize usage (docteure, auteure, professeure, chercheure, etc.), you are using French in a sexist fashion. In fact, this is an easy way to recognize a French text written on the old continent (the French never do this).

    Here is the official policy of the Government of Quebec on the matter:

    “L’emploi du féminin n’est pas obligatoire en ce sens que l’omission des noms féminins ne constitue pas une erreur de vocabulaire ou de grammaire. Par contre, leur emploi est souhaité et encouragé si l’on veut rendre visible la présence des femmes dans les textes, et par là même, leur place dans la société.” (http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=4015)

    Quebec does, however, recognize that this particular usage is not universally employed by the French international community:

    http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=5158

    The French almost never feminize their profession names, which always sounded really weird to me. They will say things like “Madame le maire” instead of “Madame la mairesse”. But then again, the French never accentuate their capital letters either, which is even weirder… 😉 Just like the small differences in writing and pronunciation between English from the UK and North America (or Spanish from Spain and Latin America), we also have our little France-Quebec arguments regarding how things should be pronounced or written. 🙂

    This is quite an interesting perspective of gender usage perception between different populations and languages. One needs to be careful not to judge how other countries or populations might perceive and employ these feminine words.

    • This is not entirely absent in France, but it is quite rare. You do occasionally hear “Madame la mairesse,” and similar terms, but it’s not common.

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