Women in The Guardian
Maddie York, an editor at The Guardian, has penned an article for that paper’s “Mind Your Language Blog” in which she objects to the use of woman as an adjective, as in woman doctor or woman writer. The subheading for the blog post—which York may not have written, as headlines are often not written by the reporter—reads:
‘Woman’ is not an acceptable adjective, any more than ‘lady’ once was. Let’s eradicate this misuse and give language a nudge in the right direction.
But this general proscription is just wrong. There is nothing, and never has been anything, wrong with using woman as an adjective.
As justification for her pronouncement York points to The Guardian’s style guide, which says:
are nouns, not adjectives, so say female president, female MPs etc rather than “woman president”, “women MPs”
Of course, The Guardian is within its rights to prefer female over woman; female doctor and female writer are perfectly good phrases, and if that is how the paper wants its writers to write, so be it. But that doesn’t mean that woman isn’t an acceptable adjective for the rest of us. It’s not a misuse that needs eradicating.
York states, incorrectly, that the adjectival use of the word is becoming more common in recent years. The fact is that woman has been used adjectivally since the Middle English period. The earliest citation in the OED of woman as adjective is from a Wycliffite translation of the Bible from before 1382, which renders 3 Kings 17:9 as “a womman widuwe.” (The 1611 Authorized (King James) version flips it, rendering 1 Kings 17:9 as “a widow woman.” Note that some versions of the Bible label the two books of Samuel as 1 Kings and 2 Kings. So what is 1 Kings in some versions is called 3 Kings in others.) But there are even earlier uses known. The Ancrene Riwle, a monastic rulebook for women written prior to 1200, has in at least one manuscript—Cambridge Corpus Christi College 402, copied around 1230—the following:
For swuch ah wummone lare to beonne luuelich & liðe & selthwenne sturne.
(For such a woman teacher to be kind and gentle and seldom harsh.)
Nor is the attributive use limited to centuries past, but has continued through the ages, with writers like Dryden, Pope, and Dickens using woman as the first element in a hyphenated noun, such as “woman-warrior” or “woman-doctor.” Others have used it as a straight-up adjective, like Fynes Moryson who in 1671 described Sappho as a “woman poet,” or Matthew Prior who in 1706 wrote of Queen Anne, “the Woman Chief is Master of the War,” or The Guardian itself which disregarded its own rule in 1979 and described Margaret Thatcher as “Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.”
So neither history nor current usage, which seems to find nothing wrong in the adjectival use of woman, is on the side of a general proscription.
York is also incorrect in analogizing this usage to the decline of lady. The objections to that word’s use isn’t because of any adjectival use, but rather because lady is a word laden with sexist overtones and connotations about appropriate gender roles, connotations that woman did not carry.
So if you want to use woman as an adjective, feel free to do so—that is, so long as the style guide for the publication you’re writing for finds it acceptable. If you prefer female, that’s fine too. Just don’t try to foist your preference onto others. And don’t use either one when you don’t have to. Only call out the fact that a person is a woman when the context demands a distinction between women and men. If the sex of the person isn’t material to the subject at hand, she is simply a doctor or police officer, not a woman doctor or woman officer.
“lady,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994, 582–83.
“woman, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2011
“womman (n.),” Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton