The Language of Naming: Conundrums Abound


As I’ve been reading Hell Hath No Fury: True Stories of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq (information overload!  pick it up and get ready to LEARN!), the question of language has arisen time and time again; specifically why we call things what they are.  Prior to reading this book, I was under the impression that words like “aviator” and “ambassador” were gender-neutral.  In fact, according to the dictionary an aviator is a pilot and an ambassador is a diplomat.  So why, oh why, did the authors keep referring to women within these pages as an “aviatrix” or an “ambassadress” (they are real words and mean a female pilot and a female ambassadress respectively)?  Why, when -man isn’t a part of the word, is it necessary to create a separate title for women doing the exact same job?  On a related note, why are “serious” actresses now demanding to be called “actors” instead of “actresses”?

At first glance, it makes sense to have a separate title for women- to make it easier to differentiate.  But why is it necessary to differentiate in the first place; if two people are doing the same job, shouldn’t they be called the same thing?  Two police officers investigating a crime, for instance–does it really matter if one is a policeman and the other is a policewoman because the same goal and the same methods for achieving it will be employed, so why bother with the lengthy and unnecessary titles?  If we call men and women different titles, we, consciously or not, immediately establish a barrier or a boundary that then creates separate expectations: one for men and one for women.  How many times do we have to read the headline: “The Top Five Female ______ Dish About Their Lives On the Job!”  Not the top 5 ______, but the the top 5 FEMALE _______.  Headlines and stories like these belittle women’s achievements because it invites the reader to appreciate the achievements of women as women, not as engineers or teachers or whatever they are.  Stories like these are probably written because women still face obstacles and bias in the workplace and are woefully underrepresented in the upper echelons of most professions and so most profiles of the top 5 _____ are usually men.  But why not write a story about professional women without pointing out that they are women?  Why not write about women as professionals first?  

From my perspective, sitting here typing at my laptop this evening, it seems that gendering seemingly neutral titles, in the military and in civilian workplaces, only furthers the difference.  It only serves to shine a spotlight on the fact that a woman is doing it, and that can have a very negative consequence.  It’s all very: “look, a FEMALE is doing this!  what a freak of nature!  come look!”  It certainly may encourage other women to enter a certain profession if they see that there are others like them in that field, but I think those benefits pale in comparison.

Which brings me back to the actor/actress problem.  If we have separate, gendered titles for things, will there be an eventual backlash?  If masculinity and male performance is still held up as the ideal, won’t women one day want to be associated with “the best” in their field?  ie: actors.  “Serious” actresses today are now demanding to be called actors because the term “actress” is apparently pejorative; or should I say too feminine and closely associated with femaleness (read: not as good as a male).  Until we, culturally and beyond, value the sexes equally, and honestly start believing that women and men are equally capable of performing equal work, we are going to be having conundrums such as these. 

Thought vomit!  Hooah!

What say you?  Do you have a gendered job title?  Do you wish you did?  Do you like it? Would you change it?


What say you about the following terms:

ward vs. wardress (pretty sure this one was made up);  concubator (also made up?) vs. concubine?  

Have you encountered any other gendered terms that strike you as…odd?


11 responses to “The Language of Naming: Conundrums Abound

  1. Well, it is worth noting that gendered distinction in language run way deeper than gender relations. Most languages have assigned all the nouns to arbitrary declensions, and in those languages ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are always in different declensions.

    That is, the word ‘man’ and the word ‘woman’ are fundamental enough distinctions that they end up in contrasting categories and that the contrast is then applied to other seemingly arbitrary nouns by the coincidence of their declension. So bread is feminine and apples are masculine and other equally meaningless assignations.

    Knowing that, it makes total sense that we would have distinct words for the male and female version of things, because otherwise the language (or at least most languages) would naturally assign arbitrary gender to a role.

    The fact that this phenomenon persists in English, where there isn’t a grammatic reason for it isn’t in-and-of-itself suspect. It’s a natural outcome of the way languages grow and evolve. What’s problematic is that all the feminine forms of the words are also diminutive.

    What I wonder is, are we looking at cause or effect? Are the feminine words diminutive because society is sexist? Or is the diminutive connotation of feminine words training us to be sexist?

  2. you craft a compelling argument TO– and I agree with you that much of current discourse seems like the chicken and the egg. what do you think about your last duo of questions?

    but my current beef is exactly what you say shouldn’t matter– specifically that the fact that this phenomenon exists today, you dismiss as being an outgrowth of something that’s naturally growing and evolving. what’s natural about something seemingly arbitrary? perhaps the problem is that what is “natural” is also archaic, sexist, and pointless?
    my problem is that these terms: aviatrix, ambassadress, wardress, etc. others and alienates women’s achievements by naming them seperately. it sounds silly and immediately causes the reader/listener to dimiss her contributions as feminine and thus less important or worthy than that of the male version’s. when we elect a female president, will she be called presidentress?
    using a seperate title for something that serves no historical or etymological purpose is problematic and creates difference when there needn’t be any. do you see what i’m saying or am i talking in circles?

  3. So, if/when I acquire a Ph.D. will I get to be a Docta of Philosophy? Maybe we, the female-types, should take these distinctions on and rock them. We get X’s in our titles!

    Eventually, we need to decide what we let become pejorative–what we give negative power to…You can call me whatever you want, but it doesn’t mean I am less capable.

    Are we distinctly separated from men, because they’re better? No, and we know that.

    Do we want to be one genderless culture? I hope not. Homogeneity blows.

    Sure, it’s ridiculously silly, but once you reach a certain age you discover how pointless titles are anyway.

    Ultimately, the individual controls how they are perceived not terminology. If an astronautress saved the world Armageddon-style would you honestly think less of the accomplishment?

  4. Hey! I’ve been there, to No Name, Colorado! Woot.

    Am I getting my Mistress’s degree or my Master’s? I don’t know anymore. Many words are no longer gendered in the English language – most people call modern-day female pilots aviators, female envoys to foreign states ambassadors, etc. Perhaps the author was trying to stay within the parlance of the times of the women she wrote about?

    Re: actor/actress: I don’t feel strongly one way or another. It would be interesting, though, to see male and female actors go head to head in the Best Actor category of the Oscars. Who would win? Would a good Harvey Milk beat an excellent Edith Piaf? The types of roles for which male and female actors are nominated are very different from one another; what would happen in these categories? Just wondering.

    Also, I am so glad that, unlike Slavic and Romance languages, English is not a strictly gendered language. Think of the headaches we’d have debating the correctness of labeling certain nouns male or female.

  5. when i was researching for my senior thesis on the depiction of women in united states history high school textbooks one of the studies i looked at took elementary-aged children who had to write a story and draw pictures about (seemingly) gender-neutral historical terms– hippie, pioneer, etc. the overwhelming majority of the children drew pictures of men even though clearly pioneers were men and women, and both were important, as their joint work ensured their survival. yet in the children’s minds, gleaned from the information in the textbooks and the stories they’ve learned, pioneers were men.

    the language that we use and the content and spin in which we apply it is important and meaningful. and it was second-wave feminists who advocated for the change from mailman to postal worker, fireman to firefighter, stewardess to flight attendant. gendered language is changing, and it will hopefully continue to change.

    (although aviatrix is a bitchin’ word.)

  6. buckingthewave

    J1: Astronautress?? yes. i would probably think less of her accomplishments. but only because she didn’t have the power to at least be called an astronautrix.
    i think you’re right however, that we as women need to claim these titles, and infuse them with our own power and meaning.

    K: i think if actor/actress were put into 1 category we would see a lot fewer women on stage for awhile. but inevitably i think it would be a really interesting development.

    M: oh, school textbooks. i think you should write an entire post about that. you already have a thesis to use as a jumping off point…yes?? yes??

  7. I agree that we ultimately decide what labels are pejorative by deciding how we will react to them – we took bitch back afterall, and lord knows I love my bitches! – but I think the issue really stems from what the original intention is of using such terms. Granted I am not fluent in any language that uses gender declensions, but are these really ‘arbitrary’ assignments as Tyler says, or is it a commentary on that particular cultures masculine and feminine ideals?

    The more we choose to verbally distinguish between male and female roles the more it fosters an environment of ‘seperate but equal,’ which we all know is not really equal at all.

  8. The list of nouns that are categorized is long enough that there are always examples that are easy to cherrypick in both directions. But mostly it really is just random. In roman times, for example the latin word for farmer (‘agricola’) is in a feminine declension, even though Romans would never have thought of women as farmers.

    I think most linguists would tell you that the reasons behind why a particular noun is in a particular declension is such a historical accident (e.g. the word was coined and put in declension a, and then adopted by language b and shortened, then a suffix was added that put it into declension c and it was coopted by language d that … blah blah blah) that to try and draw sociological conclusions from it is like trying to unmix fingerpaint.

  9. Okay, I stand corrected on foreign languages. But now we’re back to your original point that these are not standard in English and the way we’re using them implies a certain novel quality to a woman acheiving said position. “She’s smart, capable AND a girl!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s