Sex-Neutral Terms

This post on the Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language addresses sex-neutral terms and how they’ve been patchily applied in English. While the general thrust of the article is correct, the application of sex-neutral terms, like most things having to do with language, is inconsistent, at points the article starts to go off the rails, conflating issues that have nothing to do with being sex neutral.

“Hostess" is harmless but “mistress” is tainted.

This one is perhaps the most egregious slip in the post. Yes mistress is a tainted word, but it’s not tainted because it is sex-neutral; it’s tainted because of its other senses of adulterous lover and dominatrix.

The lowest enlisted ranks in America’s navy are “seamen"—regardless of the sex of the sailors in question.

True, the lowest ranks are officially dubbed seamen, a word that not only isn’t sex-neutral, but which causes pre-teen boys to giggle, but the more commonly used generic word is the sex-neutral sailor. Although the Johnson blogger is quite correct in that there is no good sex-neutral term for the air force equivalent of airmen.

Female Hollywood types are “actresses”, uncontroversially, but many women of the serious New York stage call themselves “actors”.

Yes, actress can still be used uncontroversially, but the use of actor to refer to women is gaining ground. It’s not just “women of the serious New York stage who call themselves ‘actors.’” It may be that in a decade or so, actress may be a skunked term as well. Although perhaps not, because unlike these other professions sex does make a difference in the roles that actors play. The profession itself isn’t sex neutral. (Like dominatrix, where the outdated -trix suffix lives on because the whole point of the fetish is that the woman is in charge.)

I also note that the sex neutrality can go the other way. The -ster suffix, once used to refer to woman doing a job normally performed by a man, in current use the suffix has lost its sex specificity entirely, although it retains some of its diminutive quality.

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