Why, just nurse, of course. But if someone asked you, you’d probably still think for a moment, wouldn’t you? Because it does feel very much like a female job in a lot of ways. And it’s still a role mostly performed by women. It’s evidence of the persistence of gender stereotypes like the idea that women are more natural caregivers.
So of course even though the word for a male nurse is still just nurse, we usually specify that someone is a male nurse. That’s not too surprising, considering how deep our associations between nursing and femininity go.
The word nurse has its origins in the Latin word nutricius, meaning that which suckles or nourishes. For a long time in Old French and English, words for nurse referred to what we would now refer to a wetnurse: a woman who breastfeeds another woman’s child. Even the Latin nutricius is itself derived from word nutrix, meaning wetnurse. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the word nurse generally came to refer to someone who helps other people in a more general sense. No wonder then that we’ve found it hard to accept the idea of a male nurse.
It’s also not surprising that the question that makes up the title of this post was recently asked of me by a French speaker. One of the things about French that I find the hardest to get used to is that all jobs and titles have a male and female form. Like actor and actress in English, or the now outdated manager(ess). So in French, a male nurse is un infermier, and a woman is une infirmière. And again, this is done for basically every position. Un directeur/une directrice (a manager), une enseignante/un enseignant (a teacher), un étudiant, une étudiante (a student).
Part of me wants to be forgiving and say that it’s just a hangover from less enlightened times, and there’s no conscious sexism going on. People in general are reluctant to accept change in language, after all. But even neologisms have male and female forms in French. I, for example, am un blogueur, but a woman with a blog is une blogueuse. Even a female youtubeur is une youtubeuse!
Again, you might say it’s not such a big deal, because there’s no bias against either gender. But, that’s not exactly the case when it comes to pluralising these words. If there were a group of female managers, they’d be directrices. But with a mixed-gender group, the male form takes over, so the group becomes directeurs. Even if there’s only one man in the group, they’re directeurs.
It seems odd to me that with such new words, young liberal French speakers would still use gendered forms to describe themselves. In fairness though, there are French speakers who try to use more gender-neutral or inclusive language.
They can’t make too much progress though, thanks to the Académie Française. I’ve mentioned before about how they make official pronouncements about what’s considered correct French usage. Recently, they came out strongly against the modern French trend of trying to use inclusive word forms (admittedly somewhat clumsily, using forms like directeur.trice.s). The Académie (consisting of 35 men and 5 women) declared such forms an “aberration” that would put the language in “mortal danger.” Not ones for hyperbole, the Académie.
Luckily we don’t have too many issues like this in English. A group of managers are all managers in English regardless of their gender make-up. If we’re referring to an unknown individual we can call them they, not simply he. Even if you don’t like using they to refer to an individual, using (s)he isn’t too much of a concession to political correctness, I think. It’s just adding a pair of brackets.
We haven’t moved completely away from gender bias in language. We still usually refer to actresses, and it’s hard not to specify the gender of a male nurse. At least though, in English we’re not in a bad position to be inclusive in our language, and we don’t have an Académie resisting people’s tendency to try to be fair in how they use language.