Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Poetess, authoress, walkeress, talkeress?

Like the folks who imagine that Ms. was coined by a feminist cabal, English journalist Robert Fisk believes that his editor's rejection of poetess is a modern, women's-libber prejudice, part of  the "grammar of feminism and political correctness."

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman (here) and Geoff Nunberg (here) have already set him straight. To their learned rebuttals I would like to add a commentary from Edward S. Gould, American language maven and author of "Good English" (1867).

Gould was not alone in his dislike of feminized nouns, but he devoted more space to the issue than most usage writers. He conceded that some such words (marchioness, princess) might be needed, and that others, like actress and patroness, were traditional, though "a good reason can hardly be given for their admission into our vocabulary." But many  coinages, he said, were absurd, including poetess and authoress.
Poet means, simply, a person who writes poetry; and author, in the sense under consideration, a person who writes poetry or prose: not a man who writes, but a person who writes. Nothing, in either word, indicates sex; and everybody knows that the functions of both poets and authors are common to both sexes. Hence, 'authoress' and 'poetess' are superfluous ...
If, however, those two words have, by long usage, become conventionally endurable; what shall be said of the superfine affectation, prettiness, and pedantry of conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, and so on, which have become as plenty as blackberries?

Conductor is a person who conducts; director, a person who directs; inspector, a person who inspects; waiter, a person who waits. Yet if the ess is to be a permitted or an endured addition to those words, there is no reason in language or in logic for excluding it from any noun that indicates a person; and the next editions of our dictionaries may be made complete by the addition of writeress, officeress, manageress, superintendentess, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, and so on, to the end of the vocabulary.



9 comments:

jhm said...

Wouldn't -or nouns get -trix instead of
-ess?

arnie said...

To me, "poetess" or "authoress" have condescending overtones, meaning "not really any good, but she's a woman after all". Think of the bilge that was published by some of the female poets at the end of the 19th century - that was written by poetesses. However, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a poet, and George Eliot was an author.

John Cowan said...

The titles of nobility work for me, and so does actress — sex really is a bona-fide occupational qualification for theatre roles, and I think actor as applied to women is BrE. Waitress I would say now goes in the "tolerated" category. But the rest belong in the trash-heap of history.

Kevin Morrison said...

Well, those '-or' nouns ought to be 'trix', I suppose, but I've never heard of an actrix! I still treasure the moment that the captain of a British Airways flight out of London told us that he was "joined today in the cockpit by an aviatrix, first officer Anne . . . "

Anonymous said...

"-trix" apparently survives in legal contexts; a year or two back, I saw a legal notice in a backwoods Pennsylvania paper, inviting heirs to contact the executrices of an estate.

Steps said...

If we are identifying the female gender in a suffix, shouldn't we also be identifying the male of our species? What about "poeter" and "authorer"? Or "poeto" and authoro"? Maybe the suffix identifying men could be employed only when derision or disrespect are in intended as in, for example, "George W. Bush was the authorer of the memorandum."

Anonymous said...

Oh,please, don't go that way. In German the evolution of language has already gone down that path. It is now politically incorrect to just use a noun whenever it describes a woman; one absolutely has to attach the female suffix or be recognized as a woman-hater.

I myself hate it even though I am a german woman.

Anonymous said...

words like waitress are ingrained in the language. the same with actress tho it's use is falling out of favor. to try to reduce to absurd the use of feminization and diminutives for everyday words that do not indicate gender is absurd.

words like executor and executrix have strong roots in latin in precise legal definition,and thus they survive. note, we have dominatrix but no male version of the word

dennis hodgson said...

"Manageress" is widely used in British English, but not as you might expect as a female equivalent of "manager". It is usually applied to a woman who runs something mundane, like a works canteen. A woman working in a large company would still be a manager.