Continuing a vague theme about gender in language, I want to look a little at the few gendered words we have in English.
I mentioned recently that actor/actress is still a distinction we often make. There’s waiter/waitress too. And that’s basically it.
There are some specifically female forms that have relatively recently fallen out of favour. Stewardess and manageress, for example. Generally though, we’ve been content to use gender-neutral terms.
I’m curious as to why we still say waitress. Maybe like stewardess (flight attendant), it’s persisted as it’s usually been seen as a feminine job, with waiter therefore being the deviation from the norm.
Actress I can understand because even today, roles for men and women in mainstream films are still quite different, and male characters are more likely to be the heroes. That’s another one actually, hero/heroine. I guess we expect heroism more from men, and they’re more likely to be the hero (i.e. main character) of a given story.
So there are still some distinctions between male and female terms in English, but to a much lesser extent than other languages. If we wanted to, we could use many more gendered terms. You’ve probably noticed that many female forms end in -ess, and we could effectively feminise the name of any position ending in -er by changing it to -ress. We could say teachress, writress, even blogress, though thankfully we don’t feel the need to point out that a woman can actually do all these things.
Even more obscure now is the ending -rix, which can be used to create the female form of a word ending in -or. A female director could be called a directrix, and you could be treated by a doctrix. But again, it’s not really useful to make the distinction. I have noticed Amelia Earhart called an aviatrix on a few occasions, though I think in those cases it’s more to point out how unusual it was for a women to succeed in such a male-dominated arena.
Perhaps the most-commonly used -rix word is dominatrix, which isn’t surprising given that there are more female sex workers than male.
For all the terrible recent stories of sexual harassment and the institutional sexism that persists, at least English’s relative freedom from gender distinctions allows us to more easily imagine a world in which we’re all treated equally.
N.B. I’ve taken the liberty of calling words like teacher and doctor gender-neutral, though I’m conscious of the fact that you could say they’re technically male terms, particularly since I’m currently living in a French-speaking region, where gendered terms are the norm. Even so, because their possible feminine equivalents are never used, and they’re not considered to be particularly masculine words by the population as a whole, I consider them gender-neutral.