Unisex words - why?
February 22, 2007 5:12 PM   Subscribe

About unisex terms: What is the reasoning behind them? By this I mean, for example, flight attendant instead of steward or stewardess, server instead of waiter or waitress, etc. I suppose during the height of the feminist movement in the 70s it was probably claimed that it was sexist to use terms that specify gender. But I am scratching my head wondering what the logic would be behind this. After all, if you use a term to specify females (eg stewardess) then you are also specifying males (eg steward), so I fail to see how this would be sexist. Also, it strikes me as a very handy conversion to be able to specify gender in the same word as the title. Nowadays, we have two words.. so you might hear your neighbor say, "I went to see a female doctor yesterday" (indeed, I think this is a common one), so we are still specifying the sex, so why not use doctress? I'm just curious about why this trend towards unisex words is happening and the logic behind it because frankly, I fail to see any. Thanks for any thoughtful replies!
posted by dbooster to Writing & Language (91 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
it strikes me as a very handy conversion to be able to specify gender in the same word as the title.

That's exactly why this is going out of fashion. People don't want to be identified as, for example, female doctors or male doctors anymore than they want to be identified as black doctors or Jewish doctors. I don't think it is that common to hear people speak of the "female doctor" but maybe it's because I'm young.

Then there's the problem of identifying the whole group. The choice is between (a) the lengthy "stewards and stewardesses" (also, which one goes first?), (b) choosing "stewards" or "stewardesses" arbitrarily as a stand-in for the whole group, or (c) "flight attendants." I think the latter is the least awkward.
posted by grouse at 5:25 PM on February 22, 2007


It is just one more form of speach control, a la 1984, the idea being if you control the words people use you can control how they think.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:25 PM on February 22, 2007


Also, doctress/doctoress is in the OED but the last quotation is in 1879 for this meaning.
posted by grouse at 5:26 PM on February 22, 2007


Perhaps some people don't want to be classified by their sex when it isn't relevant to the conversation? Hofstadter's Person Paper on Purity in Language drives that point home pretty well.
posted by squidlarkin at 5:26 PM on February 22, 2007 [7 favorites]


Not sure I get this. We used to say "mailmen," now we say "letter carrier." What is wrong with the new term? I know women who deliver mail. They're not men. Sure, you can say "oh, mailmen means both sexes," but what comes to mind when you say it is a man.
posted by GaelFC at 5:29 PM on February 22, 2007


I think grouse is close to it.

I think it was a bigger deal when gender balance in the work force was changing. I think the idea is that people felt that something like "repairmen" suggested women could not be employed to repair things or at least made it harder?

In short I think gender neutral language is the idea that it isn't implicitly men who are doing things.
posted by rudyfink at 5:30 PM on February 22, 2007


A lot of the time, there was an implication that a male was the default or even the only person who could perform the job: policeman, fireman, mailman.

At some level it implies that the job a steward (for example) does is different from the job that a stewardess does. (One example: "master" and "mistress" mean rather different things, though etymologically they're just the masculine and feminine versions of the same word).

There's some subtle condescension in a word like "poetess" or "aviatrix"-- it has a hint of "Oh, isn't it cute, she thinks she can write poems/ fly planes."
posted by Jeanne at 5:31 PM on February 22, 2007


People often use gender-specific terms when there is no reason to do so. (For example, why would it be necessary to say "female doctor"? Where I live, more than 50% of doctors are women.)

Gender-specific terms often carry historical prejudice. A "doctress" does not sound as strong as a doctor. In fact, "doctor" is gender neutral, not male, so using "doctress" feminizes a neutral term and becomes loaded.

Some gender-specific terms (and even some words that do not imply gender) seems like the default -- fireman, mailman, chairman. When you use "mail woman" or "fire woman", it seems very deliberate and calls attention to gender, often without need.

I don't think most people think "stewardess" includes "steward". If you said you went to a doctress or poetess convention, no one would think men were in attendance.

Note: I'm not rabid in my use of gender-neutral terms. I'm just a freelance writer who was frequently hired to rewrite government materials 10 or 15 years ago.
posted by acoutu at 5:31 PM on February 22, 2007


In my view, combining occupation and gender into one word causes all kind of problems. One of the gendered word is the regular word, the assigned gender norm for the occupation, and the other word becomes the exception. So it reinforces the assumption about which occupations are assigned to which gender. And there's little way to divorce the words from their histories/connotations/etc.

So, in traditionally male occupations, say fire fighter, the norm is reinforced by the word "fireman," and the exception becomes "firewoman," which makes the worker sound unusual, wow, a female fireman! In traditionally female occupations, say flight attendant, then the normative word is "stewardess," and the exception is "steward," which usually gets a blank stare, followed by, "you know, a male stewardess."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:32 PM on February 22, 2007


so you might hear your neighbor say, "I went to see a female doctor yesterday"

think about it: neighbour or neighbouress?
posted by de at 5:36 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think the whole steward/stewardess thing is more a result of people wanting to upgrade their image. Stewardess is about half a step above sky waitress and stewardesses want you to think of them as vital and skilled members of your flight crew rather than the person who serves you peanuts and soda and checks if you have your seat in the upright position.
posted by frieze at 5:36 PM on February 22, 2007


PS I'm pretty devoted to (or perhaps rabid about?) gender-neutral words for occupations and related concepts. Server, letter carrier, firefighter, flight attendant, chair/chairperson, etc., etc., I use 'em all. It is really hard for me to use any kind of gendered word, even the last hold outs. The phrase "man a table" makes me cringe; I say "staff the table." The word "mankind," yuuuck. I say "I'm looking for a handy person," rather than a "handyman." Even when I had a "Walkman" back in the day, I used to say "Walk-thing." I even say "no person's land." Perhaps it's ridiculous, but just a data point. It's still an issue for some of us, even in the year 2007.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:44 PM on February 22, 2007


As a related question, it seems other languages use word endings automatically to denote gender, such as German. So a teacher would automatically denote gender as Lehrer (male) or Lehrerin (female). Or has this fallen out of favor in other languages as well?
posted by artifarce at 5:47 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Imagine being a little girl. Imagine being asked what you want to be when you grow up. With me so far? Suppose you want to wear a spiffy blue uniform and put bad guys in jail. So you might say "Policeman" but something about that doesn't seem quite right. If the words are working against the ideas it can be problematic. That problem is not un-overcomeable to especially determined types of little girls, but still, many people think it shouldn't be necessary to overcome the difficulties caused by simple words.
posted by bobobox at 5:49 PM on February 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


Just flip the question around.

Assume you started with gender neutral terms for all professions: What possible gain would there be to adding gendered forms?

Answer: none. It just creates two words where one was working just fine.

"I went to see a female doctor yesterday" (indeed, I think this is a common one)

I think we must hang out in different social circles.
posted by tkolar at 6:01 PM on February 22, 2007


What is the difference between these terms? Courtier/courtesan, master/mistress, lord/lady.

Gendering occupations genders the occupation. It's why you hear people talk about 'male nurses' when nurse is not a gendered term. The power imbalance reflected in most gendered terms is offensive when women are doing the same job men are doing. Using 'man' as the universal human makes men the default, when we women are half the species.

I don't understand why it's important to refer to someone's gender. If your mechanic is a good mechanic (or a bad one) it doesn't matter what naughty bits are concealed beneath their overalls.
posted by winna at 6:02 PM on February 22, 2007


An important fact about English that I think you're missing is that the default gender is male. This is more so in other European languages-- the romances languages, for example, which have much fewer gender-neutral words than we do-- but it still remains true in English. Thus, for example, if a person doesn't know the gender of a person he is talking about, then it's customary for him to refer to that person as "he." (See?) And people have generally tended to say "mailmen" as a default.

As this is really just a feature of language and not of the workplace itself, it may seem odd that people wanted to change it. (Women can carry mail, of course, whether you call them "mailmen" or not.) It may seem especially odd to change it when one thinks about the fact that English even as spoken a hundred years ago is more gender-neutral than most languages. However, I think it makes good sense as a good-faith gesture and an act of inclusiveness. That's why I, like so many nowadays, tend to say "he or she" or even type "s/he" instead of using "he" as the default, like we did twenty years ago.
posted by koeselitz at 6:05 PM on February 22, 2007


The correct unisex term for waiter or waitress is waitron.
posted by 31d1 at 6:05 PM on February 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


Since many of you have commented on my example towards the doctor let me offer a little more explanation: It seems to me that there are various cases where people want and feel much more comfortable with a male or female doctor (usually in these cases women want a woman doctor and men want a man doctor). Maybe it is only where I live, but I very often hear the doctor's gender specified, perhaps influenced by these cases when the sex does matter to us. For the record, I live in Indiana, tho currently I am living in Japan (where I hear gender specifying far, far more often than I ever did back home, I should note).

All great anwsers. Thanks for the quick replies and please keep them coming! I am enjoying the insight.

I am also curious about the question Artifarce posed: Does this rule/trend hold for other languages too?
posted by dbooster at 6:10 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Koezelitz writes: "Thus, for example, if a person doesn't know the gender of a person he is talking about, then it's customary for him to refer to that person as "he.""

Well, I would bet you're male, even before I checked your name. While I agree with most of your comment, as a woman, I find it customary for me to refer to an unknown-gender person as "she." It's what makes sense to me, and if it makes people stop and think, so be it.
posted by GaelFC at 6:11 PM on February 22, 2007


I was always under the impression that it was a byproduct of the "politically correct" era. That's around the time that "janitor" managed to be changed to "sanitation engineer," isn't it?

And I thought that the English language defaulted things to the male gender. French does the same thing too, IIRC.

(on preview, what koeselitz said.)
posted by drstein at 6:18 PM on February 22, 2007


Using a gendered word to describe a profession implies that the profession itself is somehow dependent on gender.

The implication may be that only one gender can work in that profession (e.g. "fireman"), or it may be that when members of one gender take up a profession, the profession must be divided into special gender-specific categories in order to accomodate them (e.g. "authoress").

Combining a gender descriptor and a professional title does indeed save time...if you were already planning on giving both pieces of information. But, again, the problem is with the implication: that when you describe someone's profession, you will for some reason also want to identify their gender.

The further implication of building this shortcut into the language is that, when talking about professions, gender ought to be part of the conversation. And many people would ask: why?

Also, consider this: of all additional descriptors, why include gender and not others? Why, for example, don't we change the word "fireman" so that it identifies the fireman's race, or his age, or his sexual orientation? Obviously, the answer is "because most of the time, people using the word 'fireman' don't need to communicate those details," and the same argument goes for gender.
posted by bingo at 6:19 PM on February 22, 2007


As well as Master and Mistress illustrating how female specific terms can enable outright sexualization, also note Sir vs. Madame. One means pimp. I really think you can derive similar arguments when you look at the way the "ess" or "___woman" professions lend themselves so well to sexy halloween costumes for women that create fantasies of those professions.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:20 PM on February 22, 2007


23skidoo went down this road already, but it should be emphasized that there's what seems to be an important mistake in the question. The "female" in "female doctor" does not refer to the gender of the doctor, in current usage, but of the patient. I do not think it's equivalent to the old and very sexist "lady lawyer" or "lady doctor" which back in the day was one of the preferred ways to laugh in women's faces and diminish their contributions.
posted by mikel at 6:22 PM on February 22, 2007


An important fact about English that I think you're missing is that the default gender is male.... Thus, for example, if a person doesn't know the gender of a person he is talking about, then it's customary for him to refer to that person as "he."...And people have generally tended to say "mailmen" as a default.

koeselitz, please help me understand how those examples illustrate a "feature of the language" rather than a cultural habit or custom.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:33 PM on February 22, 2007


31d1 writes "The correct unisex term for waiter or waitress is waitron."

I think this points to the fact that much of this is simply the natural evolution of language. While terms like "firefighter" and "police officer" have become standard (to the point where the -man version of these occupational titles come off as juvenile), "waitron" and "server" haven't caught on nearly so much. I would never refer to a cop as a "policeman", but I'll always call the guy waiting on my table a "waiter". It's just a matter of what seems more comfortable, and that's part of a natural process of linguistic evolution.

koeselitz writes "An important fact about English that I think you're missing is that the default gender is male. "

English isn't really a gendered language.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:34 PM on February 22, 2007


Yes, I always understood "female doctor" to be a 'euphemism' for a gynaecologist.

In other words, a female doctor is more than likely to be a man.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:35 PM on February 22, 2007


What about the Oscars, with separate awards for actors and actresses? Shouldn't there only be awards for Best Actron and Best Supporting Actron?
posted by kirkaracha at 6:36 PM on February 22, 2007


On post-view: It's an oversimplification to say that English defaults to the masculine. A great many authors (and bloggers) now default to "she" in gender-neutral situations. Depending on the type of material you expose yourself too, you might not have seen a lot of this, but it's out there, and it's increasing all the time.

We sort of have a gender-neutral pronoun: "they". The journey and validity of "they" in this case has been explored and debated plenty in other threads, but suffice it to say that it's getting more popular all the time.

It won't be long (in terms of centuries, perhaps just decades) before the gender-neutral masculine form is considered archaic, at least in the United States, at least by people with an education.
posted by bingo at 6:37 PM on February 22, 2007


If you called Meryl Streep an accomplished actor, that is a high compliment. If you called Gene Hackman an actress that's an insult. There's an implication when you speak in gendered terms that the gender is either somehow exotic, as if you were talking about a monkey mail carrier, or the quality of their performance is tempered by their gender, like "She's doing a great job as a doctor, for a woman."
posted by hindmost at 6:43 PM on February 22, 2007


koeselitz: An important fact about English that I think you're missing is that the default gender is male. This is more so in other European languages-- the romances languages, for example, which have much fewer gender-neutral words than we do

mr_roboto: English isn't really a gendered language

Isn't really?

No, it's not at all, at least not in the sense that we use when speaking of gendered languages in Europe, where every single noun is either masculine or feminine, or neutral, in some. Even the word "the" changes according to this gender (eg o/a, la/le, der/die/das etc), and you find yourself having to memorise the genders of things like cameras, thoughts, apples, and so on.

If that is what koeselitz was referring to, then that would be way off the mark & pretty much irrelevant here.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:46 PM on February 22, 2007


There was a previous (good) discussion about this.

Bingo has already made the point, so I'll just re-emphasize: Why is a person's gender so relevent to their occupation that it has to be specified every single time you mention the job title? You're assuming that by specifying their gender, you are passing along information directly relevent to how they do their job. What makes you view gender as something that carries that much weight?
posted by occhiblu at 6:49 PM on February 22, 2007


The most bizarre, offensive and incorrect term is "Father" for God. What bright soul decided that God was a man? It's offensive to God and offensive to me.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:51 PM on February 22, 2007


Why is a person's gender so relevent to their occupation that it has to be specified every single time you mention the job title?

Well, you know, when I'm in the shower with all the other guys after footy training, and I'm telling them about last night's visit to town to piss up & watch the strippers, I don't want them to be getting the wrong idea into their heads...
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:54 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Clarkstonian, it's a good question, but let's not claim to know what God would or wouldn't be offended by. Some may find that in and of itself offensive. :)
posted by dbooster at 7:02 PM on February 22, 2007


In my view, combining occupation and gender into one word causes all kind of problems. One of the gendered word is the regular word, the assigned gender norm for the occupation, and the other word becomes the exception. So it reinforces the assumption about which occupations are assigned to which gender. And there's little way to divorce the words from their histories/connotations/etc.

I completely agree with ClaudiaCenter on this one, but I'm thinking that it might also have something to do with the fight toward pay equity. I mean, I know at my institution that until the early '80s, there were two separate pay scales - one for women's jobs and one for men's jobs. Thus, even if the duties might be exactly the same, there would be "justification" for paying women less because of the gendering of job titles. So corporate/legal occupational titles had to become gender-neutral.
posted by raxast at 7:10 PM on February 22, 2007


I second Squidlarkin's reference to Hofstadter's Person Paper on Purity in Language. It is simultaneously hilarious and unnerving. It answers this question in a pretty absolute way.
posted by alms at 7:16 PM on February 22, 2007


For professions, it's true that the gender of the person is usually irrelevant. (Although female actors tend to play different styles of roles than male actors, so I guess the Academy is allowed to hand out different awards to men and woman.) So, yes, why not be inclusive? It seems simpler.

I fail to see what the romantic languages gain by attaching a gender to all their nouns, other than injecting a little bit of sex into mundane objects. e.g. "There's one sausage left. Are you going to eat her?" (translated from German)

For relationships, gender is rather central, and I am always confused when someone mentions their partner. Are they telling me they are gay? Are they being politically correct? Or am I being old-fashioned in even thinking about gender?
posted by kamelhoecker at 7:29 PM on February 22, 2007


Squidlarkin and alms, I hadn't seen that Hofstadter essay before. Awesome.
posted by ldenneau at 7:31 PM on February 22, 2007


English does not default to the masculine. In fact, it wasn't until the 1800s or so that people started using "he" for unknown gender. The rise of mercantilism made agreement in number more important than agreement in gender. However, as other threads show, this only lasted a few decades in the teaching system (although it takes far longer to undo).
posted by acoutu at 7:37 PM on February 22, 2007


The correct unisex term for waiter or waitress is waitron.

Only for a robotic waiter or waitress. The alternative term, server, is only slightly better. I keep wanting to ask my server to give me my e-mail.

Yes, I always understood "female doctor" to be a 'euphemism' for a gynaecologist.

A "female doctor" is a gynecologist. A "female doctor" is a doctor who is a woman. It's all in the emphasis.
posted by kindall at 7:42 PM on February 22, 2007


it wasn't until the 1800s or so that people started using "he" for unknown gender.

And it wasn't until the 70s and 80s that sociolinguists did research on indefinite pronouns that pretty much determined that people who saw supposedly gender indefinite "he" in a sentence would get mental imagery that was masculine, they would think of men, not of "gender neutral people" or a mix of men and women. I did a thesis paper on this in college and it was still a relatively newish idea, that the male pronoun was strongly implying maleness despite the fact that it was supposedly indefinite as to gender. And people still flip out about singular "they".

So, with this in mind, and understanding somewhat what people claim to "see" when they read these words, people tried to make a change in the language towards more gender-indefinite terms where possible. Some of these were silly and didn't really catch on and I believe a few were either outright jokes or political correctness gone haywire (personhole cover?) but a lot did and I think it goes a ways towards accuracy to talk about fire fighters and police officers than their formerly male-weighted terms.
posted by jessamyn at 7:47 PM on February 22, 2007


I can't offer sources, but when I talked with my grandpa about words ending in "-ess" once, he pointed out that it's a diminutive, that adding "-ess" makes it a smaller or lesser version of the real thing. Can any wordsmiths or etymologists comment on this?

My personal leaning is to use "-ess" in descriptions for passive descriptive roles (like duke/duchess, baron/baroness, heir/heiress) but not for active occupations (poet, actor, waitstaff, flight attendant). To me, the former just feels like normal description along with race, age, and so on, while for the latter, using terms like "poetess" smacks a bit of "you'll be a real poet someday, sweetie." (Especially since so many other occupation titles aren't gendered: designer, programmer, etc.)
posted by cadge at 8:07 PM on February 22, 2007


The most bizarre, offensive and incorrect term is "Father" for God. What bright soul decided that God was a man? It's offensive to God and offensive to me.

You strike to the heart of the answer to the original and similar questions, but not at all in the way you think you do, I suspect. Whether you believe in the factual existence of a god or gods or not, the way in which most people perceive the nature of the deity is absolutely a construct that is culturally created and conditioned.

Also: I think koeselitz, despite being marked 'best answer' has it precisely backwards calling it a 'feature of the language' in suggesting that English has male as the 'default gender'.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:16 PM on February 22, 2007


Well, you know, when I'm in the shower with all the other guys after footy training, and I'm telling them about last night's visit to town to piss up & watch the strippers, I don't want them to be getting the wrong idea into their heads...

Yes, you wouldn't want them to think you had been watching stripesses, would you?

Also, why have we felt the need to make up two whole new (and crappy) terms for a person who brings you food in a restaurant -- waitron and server? We have happily contracted to using just the "male" form of actor and poet (actron/player and potron/rhymer?), so couldn't we just use "waiter" regardless of gender?
posted by Rock Steady at 8:35 PM on February 22, 2007


kamelhoecker: "For relationships, gender is rather central, and I am always confused when someone mentions their partner. Are they telling me they are gay? Are they being politically correct?"

Personally, I use the term "partner" because I'm in my 30s and feel weird saying "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" -- it seems juvenile.
posted by loiseau at 8:51 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Since the Romance languages thing was brought up, there is a change in the word to indicate the gender: 'el doctor' and 'la doctora' for example. So I suppose the situation is "worse" than in English and dbooster's wish that profession and gender be in the same word is satisfied.

However this is entirely separate from the gendered objects thing. As has been said many times, the gender of the object has no relation to any association with people of either gender. For example, 'the dress' is usually masculine, 'the beard' is feminine.
posted by vacapinta at 9:14 PM on February 22, 2007


That's not a feature; that's a bug.
posted by flabdablet at 9:25 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, you wouldn't want them to think you had been watching stripesses, would you?

Fuck no! Not if I play for the Sydney Convicts!

The alternative term [for a waiter or waitress], server, is only slightly better. I keep wanting to ask my server to give me my e-mail.

I dunno, it's not so bad. Their functions are similar. The main difference is that one server has bugs, the other, crabs.

the gender of the object has no relation to any association with people of either gender. For example, 'the dress' is usually masculine, 'the beard' is feminine.

These make perfect sense to me: the dress is all over the woman, whereas a beard can sometimes be attractive, but it is always guaranteed to be irritating.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:42 PM on February 22, 2007


Doh!

"...they'd think I'd changed to the other team!"
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:45 PM on February 22, 2007


In the South, when someone says "female doctor" they mean gynecologist.

Even when I had a "Walkman" back in the day, I used to say "Walk-thing." I even say "no person's land." Perhaps it's ridiculous

Yes, I'm afraid that is ridiculous, and a perfect example of clumsily addressing a problem that doesn't actually exist. The 3 letters m-a-n do not have any magical or mystical property about them.

I think it is perfectly fine to use "man" to represent humans, just as "cat", "dog", "horse", "cow", "bear" or any other number of terms represent both sexes.

I think one has to stretch credibility to the very limit to consider sexist the word "mankind", which when used in any modern context, has always meant all humans. I certainly have never heard anyone use the term "mankind" to mean just males. Surely they would just use the term "men" instead.

The one that boggles my mind is how comedienne was rather unceremoniously dropped, and they all became comedians... and subsequently how comic has almost replaced comedian, but now there is a rise in those being labeled, even by themselves, as a "female comic".

So, destroy the feminine version, then replace the male version with a neutral version, then add a female descriptor to the neutral version.

I just don't get it.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:12 PM on February 22, 2007


I think it is intereting that most gender based role/title changes are geared toward accomodating women in roles that aren't traditionally held by women, however, with few exceptions, there have been no attempts to come up with genderspecific terms for roles traditionally held by women. There has been no effort to butch up nurse in relation to male nurses or nannies (aside from the jokey 'murse' or mannies). The title is the same for male and female teachers, etc. It is interesting that steward is the masculine version of stewardess when steward is a gender-neutral tern and all functions of a steward can be filled in the same way by male or female (just like teacher or nurse)
posted by necessitas at 10:49 PM on February 22, 2007


Ynoxas, I suspect that's because "comedienne" carries the historical idea that the comic is doing a good job "for a girl". However, "female comic" (or female comedian) most likely helps to point out diversity, in cases where calling attention to gender may be warranted. (For example, although I would never refer to my current doctor as "a female doctor", I have used "doctor who's a woman" to refer to the one woman who was a doctor in the small city where I grew up, in cases where it was important to call attention to this fact.)
posted by acoutu at 10:51 PM on February 22, 2007


Actor is unisex in the Guardian and Ms.. I say waitstaff and mailperson.
posted by brujita at 10:58 PM on February 22, 2007


I think Thoreau said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. It's one of the things that makes me glad I'm a woman. Oh wait, did he mean women too?

Historically, women were considered the lesser sex, and often not included in discussions of mankind, because they were believed to be, well, less than huMAN.
posted by b33j at 11:06 PM on February 22, 2007


Objecting to the --man suffix in a wide variety of words is etymologically misguided. One might as well call Hofstadter's "Person Paper on Purity in Language" sexist because "person" accidentally ends in "--son".

The evil "--man" suffix is really nothing more than the Old English word for the number "one" (ie: "an/ann", "on/onn", etc.) with an epenthetic /m/ added in order to differentiate it from common verb endings (ie: --an, --en, etc.). It survives in modern German: "Man kann Zeitungen lesen." doesn't mean "Men can read newspapers." Likewise, in English, when we say "chairman" or "craftsman", we're saying "ONE who chairs" or "ONE who crafts". "Woman" (Wo < wif) means who i>wifes".

It's boils down to a matter of perception (and misperception). There are people who actively look for slights and pounce on anything even close. No one screams that "gerontology" is sexist -- even though it's from the Greek work exclusive to old MEN. But if everyone spoke Greek, that'd certainly be on the ban list too.
posted by RavinDave at 12:29 AM on February 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


I am always irritated when writers use 'their' in order to avoid the 'his or her' issue. When the antecedent is 'someone' or 'a person' or any other singular, the subsequent pronoun should be singular, he/she, his/her, not they/their.
"Why is a person's gender so relevent to their occupation. "When someone mentions their partner. . ."
"If your mechanic is a good mechanic (or a bad one) it doesn't matter what naughty bits are concealed beneath their overalls."
posted by namret at 1:52 AM on February 23, 2007


What about the Oscars, with separate awards for actors and actresses? Shouldn't there only be awards for Best Actron and Best Supporting Actron?

I was CONVINCED in my head that the Oscars had changed to "Best Female Actor" and "Best Male Actor" recently... but I see from their site that it is Actor and Actress... am I losing my mind?

Personally, I use the term "partner" because I'm in my 30s and feel weird saying "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" -- it seems juvenile.

Me too - I've been with my better half for almost 3 years... "Girlfriend" makes it feel like she's the girl I dated in 10th grade. But partner doesn't really sound right either.

When the antecedent is 'someone' or 'a person' or any other singular, the subsequent pronoun should be singular, he/she, his/her, not they/their.

It's perfectly acceptable to use they or their as a singular pronoun. This is hardly something new.
posted by antifuse at 2:50 AM on February 23, 2007


namret: you should let go of that irritation, as it's based on a misunderstanding.
posted by flabdablet at 3:02 AM on February 23, 2007


As an extra data point, until recently I was a waiter who was a girl. I've never thought of it as a masculine term, and everyone at my (relatively young) workplace uses it as a neutral (although generally we're all 'front staff' to the manager).
posted by jacalata at 4:20 AM on February 23, 2007


Joke: Seamstress or seamster?!! (The seamster's union is going to be very important to the 2008 elections!)

Serious: I call all waiters servers and I call all actors actors. I think it's pretty demeaning to have a different word for acting if you're a girl, but hey, many female actors use "actress." Which then creates problems for me -- I mean, I want to call people what they want to be called (black or african american), so I'm not sure what to do in these cases. But I hardly ever see Julia Roberts at dinner, so it's pretty much moot what I call her.
posted by zpousman at 6:24 AM on February 23, 2007


Even when I had a "Walkman" back in the day, I used to say "Walk-thing." I even say "no person's land." Perhaps it's ridiculous

I always said walkperson because I thought it was funny (I was in middle school at the time), but I've definitely noticed and been pleased by the natural trend toward gender neutral terms in the last decade or so. Most of my friends who wait tables use "server" without a second thought; likewise many female friends who act consider themselves actors, and the seemingly diminuitive feminine ending is just not really noticed - it's not out of place if someone uses it but it's not missing if it isn't used, at this stage. I can't imagine someone referring to a "female doctor" unless they were perhaps specifically requesting a doctor who was female, in which case you would want to use an adjective formation to emphasize that the gender was an important rather than incidental aspect of your request.

I was teaching Emerson this week and he very regularly speaks of "Man" and "Mankind" to refer to human beings and heroes, and I tend to act as if it's a gender neutral term, i.e., to say "we each have the capacity to be a great man". In older sources it is sometimes a gender neutral (you will occasionally see notes like "she was a great man") and it seems to be unfortunate that 'man' is considered male and then wo-man female, as it gives the impression once again of a standard and a secondary or altered version. It seems too late to change it, but I kind of wish we could switch man and hu-man, so the gender specific terms would each have a prefix and the neutral would be the simplest shared syllable. (Or perhaps we could come up with a new term to refer to the specifically male).
posted by mdn at 6:32 AM on February 23, 2007


Yeah, it's supposed to be gender neutral, but if you have a door with the word "men" on it, some people just don't feel welcome.

(and it's not walkperson, it's walkperchild...or huperchild)
posted by bink at 6:44 AM on February 23, 2007


From linguistic standpoint, others will answer better than I.

From a cultural standpoint: it's because we're bunch of goddamned politically correct ninnies.

Saying that someone is a waitress or a waiter, a steward or stewardess, a host or hostess IS NOT SEXIST. It just provides more information on the person about which you are talking. It helps provide a better picture.

A world full of genderless colorless people would be a very boring world indeed. Too bad that's where we're heading thanks to the PC police.
posted by jaded at 6:47 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that gender-neutral terms catch on with more or less ease depending on how difficult they are to say compared to the existing gender-specific terms. "Server" is just as easy/quick to say as "waiter" or "waitress," so I picked it up pretty easily. On the other hand, -person words are always more clunky than -man words. "Letter-carrier" is three more syllables than "mailman" and I'm therefore much less likely to use it unless I'm talking specifically about a female postal worker. It's almost as though the gender-neutral term is only necessary when talking about the feminine role, so it's not really neutral after all. Maybe I'm just a really lazy speaker, but I feel like the language loses some of its elegance when you add unnecessary syllables to avoid hurting someone's feelings.

That said, I do stick with the new gender-neutral terms when the older versions seem to add some kind of sexual feeling to the conversation. Even though it's longer, I'll always say "massage therapist" instead of "masseuse" or "masseur."
posted by vytae at 7:35 AM on February 23, 2007


It's worth noting that, in times long past, the use of "man" or "he," in what we might now think of as gender-neutral contexts, sometimes was used to indicate only men. For example, in Wordworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads, he says that poetry is "a man talking to a man." My professor pointed out that Wordsworth wasn't saying "a human talking to another human," he really meant a member of the male gender talking to another member of the male gender.

Similarly, early American documents concerning every man's right to vote and own property were not using "man" as a catch-all to include women. They were using "man" as a catch-all to include those citizens whose rights they were most concerned with. Our acting as if "man" is really a gender-neutral descriptor is not being honest with ourselves about our past as well as our present.
posted by bingo at 7:38 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


As an aside the word "cow" generally refers only to the female of the species. The word "bull" refers to male bovines (and whales for that matter), and the gender-neutral term for a singular instance of that animal apparently used to be "ox" but has been supplanted in common usage "cow," which in this conversation is actually kind of interesting, in that the female-specific term has become the gender-neutral term.
posted by mzurer at 8:02 AM on February 23, 2007


23skidoo: No, there is not, necessarily, extra meaning in -ess words. You are in Texas, you should know this.

I can't go an hour without hearing someone in the office being called sweetheart, honey, darling, etc. And it is primarily women to other women. If I read anything into being called "honey" I would think every woman in town was interested in me. Which of course I think that anyway, because I'm a deluded egomaniac, but I know I'm deluded, so it balances out.

My favorite is waitresses (yes, I used that word, to be explicit, because males don't do it, and I didn't want to have to say "female servers") who call you an entire string of them in a row. Like she walks up to the table and says "Can I get you anything else, honey-baby-sweetie-pie-sugar-dumplin?"

People understand in the South these affectations are not a come-on. It is standard conversation.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:30 AM on February 23, 2007


Inclusiveness is the word here. As it has been said above, these words and titles are a result of a masculine-by-default language. Also, most of the jobs being discussed had been performed by either one sex or the other for a much longer time period than this relatively recent shift towards gender neutrality has been going on. And of course, tradition dies hard (see christianity).

So we have gender-specific words already in place and in mind, and a society striving for gender-neutrality but is still rather self-couscious about it all. Adding traditional gender suffixes (-ess, -or, etc.) doesn't quite do the trick, because it suggests a "separate but equal" mentality, which, of course, is not what we're going for. So instead, inclusiveness is achieved (or attempted anyway) by including no one, at the expense of making our language and the meaning behind it that much more difficult to understand.
posted by tjvis at 11:42 AM on February 23, 2007


Adding traditional gender suffixes (-ess, -or, etc.) doesn't quite do the trick, because it suggests a "separate but equal" mentality, which, of course, is not what we're going for.

This is really the essence of it. Nobody is saying that the word "waitress" signifies some inferiority in women. But it does imply that there is some reason to group the occupation and the gender together.

You can claim that the reason for that grouping has nothing to do with sexism, but that doesn't remove the lingering question of why the grouping exists to begin with.
posted by bingo at 1:09 PM on February 23, 2007


Saying that someone is a waitress or a waiter, a steward or stewardess, a host or hostess IS NOT SEXIST. It just provides more information on the person about which you are talking. It helps provide a better picture.

I'm honestly struggling to think of a situation when this information would be useful. If you're talking about an individual, then their gender is obvious from the context: "she is a really good firefighter"; "John is a new server" etc.

On the other hand, if you're talking about an indeterminate or hypothetical person, or a group of people, you can say: "the firefighters had an uneventful shift". Traditional usage is clumsier here, you either say "the firemen" or "the firemen and firewomen". The second is clumsy, and the first confusing: does it mean all the firemen were male, or is the speaker including females in the generic term?

Adding to that, I echo an earlier post: why not include additional information about the person's age, or race, or sexuality? Because it usually isn't that relevant.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:21 PM on February 23, 2007


I'm honestly struggling to think of a situation when this information would be useful

"The server asked me if I wanted to go out to the parking lot to make out".

"The firefighter's name is Terri".

"The actor had incredibly hairy arms."

"The chairperson surprised everyone by wearing a dress to the meeting."

Despite all the claims to the contrary above (not just you IJ), there are hundreds of cases where the gender of the person would be at least tangentially related to the point of the story/description/whatever.

Take 60 seconds. Just 60 seconds. I imagine you can think of 4 or 5 that quickly.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:29 PM on February 23, 2007


And I'm sure that you can think of 30 situations in which a person's age, nationality, height, sexual orientation, dislike of blueberries, hair color, ow voice, lack of sense of humor, or preference for cats would be at least tangentially related to the point of a particular story/description/whatever.

Yet we don't insist that language give us a single word for "someone who waits tables and prefers cats to dogs" or "red-headed firefighters who dislike blueberries."

Yes, sometimes you need to know a person's gender. But you generally don't need to know a person's gender so badly that you can't spare another word to indicate it. (And if you find yourself disagreeing with that, you might want to ask yourself why you're so obsessed with other people's genitalia and enactment of gender roles.)
posted by occhiblu at 7:48 PM on February 23, 2007


"The actor had incredibly hairy arms."

I agree with occhiblu. In this example, it would help to know if the actor was a chimpanzee.
posted by vacapinta at 9:02 PM on February 23, 2007


"The server asked me if I wanted to go out to the parking lot to make out".

"The firefighter's name is Terri".

"The actor had incredibly hairy arms."

"The chairperson surprised everyone by wearing a dress to the meeting."


Who tells a story this way? The only time you're going to use these examples is in narratives, when you're going to waste all kind of verbiage describing the weather and who else was there and trying to figure out if this was last Tuesday, or, no, it was Wednesday because that's when Jamie has his swimming lessons. Using an extra adjective to specify the gender of the person you're talking about is completely insignificant in that context, and then you have the advantage of not having to specify it the rest of the time, when specifying it is either syntactically awkward ("the firemen and firewomen") or comes across as sexist regardless of your motivations, or is .

Re using "he" to mean somebody of either sex, this only became a convention in English around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when the importance of mathematics soared, and suddenly it was more important for number (singular vs plural) to be correct than for gender to be. Switching to "they" is, in a sense, restoring English's traditional pre-industrial majesty. (I prefer to recast the sentence so that "they" is correct in both gender and number.)
posted by joannemerriam at 10:58 PM on February 23, 2007


-"or is"
posted by joannemerriam at 10:59 PM on February 23, 2007


In Australia, a letter carrier would be a postie, and a sanitation engineer would be a garbo. Both of these are gender-neutral, though it must be said you don't see a lot of female garbos.
posted by flabdablet at 2:12 AM on February 24, 2007


I am always irritated when writers use 'their' in order to avoid the 'his or her' issue. When the antecedent is 'someone' or 'a person' or any other singular, the subsequent pronoun should be singular, he/she, his/her, not they/their.

Aside from the point that others have made that it is grammatically acceptable to use they/their with a singular antecedent (see also this page), using 'he/she' or 'his/her' or 'he or she' or 'his or her' is just a horrible, clumsy and inelegant construction. It makes any sentence that it's in sound like a quote from tax law, and requires a tin ear to let it past.

I am always irritated when a writer does not notice this when he/she is editing his/her text.
posted by reynir at 2:18 AM on February 24, 2007


these words and titles are a result of a masculine-by-default language.

No -- these words and titles are a result of a culture that, until recently, did not question its sexist assumptions and attitudes. There is nothing structurally inherent in the English language that makes "waiter" by default a masculine word.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:24 AM on February 24, 2007


Yet we don't insist that language give us a single word for "someone who waits tables and prefers cats to dogs"

How very true. However, you overlook the obvious point that we ALREADY HAVE A WORD THAT MEANS FEMALE SERVER. WE ALREADY HAVE A WORD THAT MEANS MALE FIREFIGHTER.

And, further, its usage PREDATED the current gender-neutral term.

So, REALLY, what this is all about, is having perfectly good, useful, succinct, and descriptive words, that because of a certain viewpoint, their usage is being artificially minimized to be replaced with the less-specific form, pretending the old ones are anathema.

Why should we have specific terms for anything then?

Instead of the gender neutral "firefighter", since as you list brevity is of no concern, why not just use "a human being that performs first aid and CPR, removes hazardous materials, rescues cats from trees, inspects sprinkler systems, educates children on smoke detectors, and extinguishes fires using water, chemicals, dirt, or any other flame retardant materials".

Surely then we would not have to worry about someone being offended at the overly-specific "firefighter", since clearly they do other things besides "fight fires". Why are you so obsessed with minimizing their contribution to society with the overly-specific term "firefighter"?

As said above, calling someone a "waitress" is not, in and of itself, sexist. It is merely accurate.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:14 AM on February 24, 2007


Instead of the gender neutral "firefighter", since as you list brevity is of no concern, why not just use "a human being that performs first aid and CPR, removes hazardous materials, rescues cats from trees, inspects sprinkler systems, educates children on smoke detectors, and extinguishes fires using water, chemicals, dirt, or any other flame retardant materials".

Because all those things make up that person's occupation. Notice that even you didn't list whether or not the person in question likes chocolate, or lives in Arizona, even though you could have. Hint: you didn't include any of those things, because when you're just trying to get across someone's occupation, details not related to their occupation are not relevant.

We could have an occupational term called "firebrunette." This term would be used to describe people who fight fires (and do all the other things you listed above) and are also brunettes.

Now suppose that this term was actually the standard way of referring to someone with brown hair who fights fires. "Hi, this is my friend Amy, she's a firebrunette."

After a while, Amy might start to get irritated at this. Being a brunette is not bad, and being a brunette firefighter is not bad either. But really, she may say, when describing her occupation, why is it necessary to bring her hair color into it every time? It's almost as if there's an implication that the description of her occupation isn't complete without adding that detail. This, in turn, implies that there actually is a connection, that brunettes who fight fires are really engaged in a different occupation than blondes who fight fires. And once we say that the jobs are different, it opens up the door to ask whether those two jobs should actually pay the same, have the same benefits, the same status, etc.

Similarly:

As said above, calling someone a "waitress" is not, in and of itself, sexist. It is merely accurate.

This is true. Do you really not understand that nobody is arguing with this? It's the "in and of itself" part that's the problem.
posted by bingo at 10:54 AM on February 24, 2007


Ynoxas, why is gender relevent to the job description? You're completely missing the point. The fact that we think gender is relevent to how someone does a job is the problem here. Your ranting that you need to know the sex of your firefighters! is demonstrating exactly why many of have problems with gender-specific terminology -- it priveleges a person's genitalia over their job function when describing their job function.

No one's trying to eliminate people's ability to talk about gender. Of course it's relevent sometimes. But to say that it's always relevent when describing someone's actions on the job is sexist.
posted by occhiblu at 11:01 AM on February 24, 2007


(For fun, imagine that any time you or anyone brought up your job, they mentioned your penis. "This is Ynoxas, he's an engineer, he has a penis." "I have to go into work today, I have a penis." "Occuption: Engineer with a penis." "Oh, I studied at a technical school, because I wanted to be an engineer with a penis."

Doesn't that seem a bit tedious and ridiculous to you?)
posted by occhiblu at 11:05 AM on February 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


i would have no problem with that, provided that they used a suitably impressive adjective.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:55 PM on February 24, 2007


How 'bout a suffix? Maybe "penisess"?
posted by occhiblu at 5:09 PM on February 24, 2007


kamelhoecker: For relationships, gender is rather central, and I am always confused when someone mentions their partner. Are they telling me they are gay? Are they being politically correct? Or am I being old-fashioned in even thinking about gender?

Why does the gender of the person with whom I have a domestic relationship matter? Why do you care? What does that have to do with who I am any more than their hair color, astrological sign, or Body Mass Index?

"Yeah, my brunette-Sagittarius-16-friend and I saw that movie last weekend."

"Interesting. But what kind of genitals do they have?"

I don't blurt out my salary when I mention my profession; I don't blurt out a list of past sexual partners a person has had when I say their name; and I don't wear my sexuality on my sleeve -- at least not in polite company.

I also don't correct people for calling their relationships what they please -- I don't make a face if someone says "my boyfriend," "my girlfriend," or even "my fuckmonster." What they call themselves and their relationships are their business, and I take their lead. But the word "partner" is nice for when you don't know (or don't care) if someone has a partner of a particular gender, and you don't want to try to guess their sexuality.

In conclusion, kamelhoecker, they're not trying to tell you anything besides the fact that they're in a meaningful relationship with another person. They could be gay, they could be a PC-nazi, or they could just be polite. And yes, caring about people's genitals is old-fashioned. (At least, caring about them in a linguistic sense.)
posted by Coda at 6:56 PM on February 24, 2007


I was CONVINCED in my head that the Oscars had changed to "Best Female Actor" and "Best Male Actor" recently

The Screen Actors Guild uses this construction for their awards. In the introductory speeches given, traditionally, at the beginning of their awards show telecast, various guild members give a little speech about their careers and end it with "I'm _______ and I am an Actor."

There is no Screen Actresses Guild.
posted by Dreama at 10:19 PM on February 24, 2007


How 'bout a suffix? Maybe "penisess"?

You know, bluey, that your comment totally confused me, until, after some reflection, I realised that you meant a suffix for *women*.

The problem is, you seem to have made a typo.

The obvious suffix would be "-less".
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:29 PM on February 25, 2007


No, I just meant that the typical suffix used for women hardly connoted anything like "impressive." A "waitress" is not a person who's assumed to do her job impressively well, just as an "engineer with a penisess" might be considered to have less than impressive personal attributes to bring to the table.
posted by occhiblu at 12:40 PM on February 28, 2007


But *someone* needs to make the coffee!

And if she has "impressive personal attributes" on top of those skills, then the penally-gifted engineers will have something to keep their minds occupied during all those tedious planning meetings.

must...stop...trolling...occhiblu. y'know, i had an antimisogynist friend at uni who pointed out that tongue-in-cheek faux-misogyny is itself just another part of the problem & doesn't defuse a single thing: "why would you even say that? what makes it possible come up with that kind of thought? did you know that irony & parody don't actually work if what you say is what others really believe? etc"
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:06 PM on February 28, 2007


I have tended to find, over the years, that I laugh at such comments mainly in order to "prove" that I am not a harpy, not because they're actually funny. So, yeah, I'd kinda agree.... :)
posted by occhiblu at 6:15 PM on March 4, 2007


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