Gender Benders

by Hugh Rawson

In Connecticut, where I live, women’s basketball is one of the most popular sports. Many people arrange their lives around the schedule of the University of Connecticut’s women’s team.  Fans (the word is short for fanatic, by the way) don’t want to miss a game even though the outcome is rarely in much doubt.

The UConn women are good shooters, of course, but their success over the years has always depended a lot on their defensive skills. They switch between zone defenses, where players guard particular areas around their basket, and man-to-man defenses, where each player is responsible for a different member of the opposing team. And man-to-man, if you pause to think about it, is a bit odd in the context. After all, there are ten women on the floor. No men. Why don’t sportscasters say woman-to-woman or, since these are young women, girl-to-girl

The answer tells us a lot about the English language and how it works. In brief – and this will come as no surprise to most women — the rule over the centuries has been that masculine words have higher social status than feminine ones. This is revealed in a couple of ways. First, masculine words that develop negative meanings tend to be converted into feminine ones. Second, as women strive for equality, the tendency is for them to cast aside feminine terms in favor of masculine ones.

A prime example of a word that underwent a sex change as its negative meanings became dominant is harlot. When this word surfaced in the early thirteenth century, it had various masculine meanings, typically referring to a beggar, vagabond, boy, servant, rascal, or buffoon. As the worse meanings became dominant, the word was extended to women, especially those of dubious reputation, such as jugglers, dancing girls, actresses, and strumpets. By the sixteenth century, harlot became what it is now, a euphemism for the blunter, harsher whore.

Hoyden followed a similar progression. The earliest examples of the word in writing, from the late sixteenth century, refer to a rude or ignorant fellow. Before the end of the next century, it had become a feminine term, meaning a bold, saucy girl or woman, a hussy (another word that has dropped down the social ladder, hussy began as a variant of the respectable housewife).

Girl itself evolved in much the same way. The word originally referred to a child of either sex. Back then, prior to the sixteenth century, girls generally were divided into knave girls, which were boys, and gay girls, which were female girls. Once the word became limited to females, a host of more-or-less negative meanings became attached to it. A girl might be a maid, a servant, a prostitute, or a woman in an inferior position; for example, a factory-girl, office-girl, shop-girl, or telephone girl. Even girlfriend is tricky, innocent enough in some contexts but a euphemism for “mistress” or “lover” in others. The bottom rung on this particular linguistic ladder is the man who is regarded as being not quite a man, the so-called girly man.

Today, the demeaning connotations of girl have become so strong that it is dangerous for a man to refer to a woman as such unless he knows her very well or she is a pre-teenager. This also applies to the slangy, once-common gal. Nowadays young women are more likely to be addressed as guys, as in “So long, guys,” or “You guys thirsty?” Guy is another gender bender, of course. It was once a purely masculine term. A nineteenth-century Americanism for a man, a fellow, it derived from the British guy, meaning one of the grotesque effigies of Guy Fawkes that were traditionally burnt on November 5, the anniversary of Fawkes’ failed plot to blow up Parliament in 1605.

The slow movement of the sexes toward equality, linguistically at least, also is evidenced by the fading away of feminine suffixes. One rarely hears of a poetess or authoress nowadays; the formerly all-masculine poet and author are preferred. Same goes for sculptor as opposed to sculptress. Most actresses prefer actor (except when accepting Academy Awards). Meantime, flight stewardess has been replaced by the asexual flight attendant. If Amelia Earhart were living today, she would be known as an aviator, not an aviatrix. Some feminine endings live on, but mainly in conservative circles, such as the nobility (baroness, countess, duchess), the church (abbess, prioress), the law (conservatrix, executrix) and other specialized callings (dominatrix).  

In a sense, women basketball players who play man-to-man defenses are turning back the linguistic clock since man originally referred to a human of either sex. In Old English, the sexual distinction was between wer and wīf for male and female. Gradually, males took the generic man for themselves (the wer survives in werewolf) while wīf-mann, female human, evolved into woman and the lone wīf was diminished into wife (the original general sense of wīf survives in such terms as fishwife and midwife). Of course, the generic man usually is avoided today because it is widely thought to deprecate women or, at the very least, present a hurdle to their advancement in society. Thus,  chairmen have turned into chairs, firemen into fire fighters, college freshmen into freshpeople, spokesmen into spokespersons, and so on and on.

Some benighted males may argue that they do not intend to imply that their sex is superior when they employ man in such phrases as “Man is a tool-making animal” (a line that James Boswell credited in his diary to Ben Franklin), but they are fighting a losing battle. Meanings of words shift over time and what is important today is how they are understood by most people today, off the basketball court as well as on.                              


12 thoughts on “Gender Benders

  1. Harry

    A fascinating commentary! I remember that when women’s basketball first drew wide media attention, journalists were careful to speak of “person-to-person” or “player-to-player” defense. The long-established “man-to-man” eventually prevailed, since it looks exactly the same regardless of the gender of the athletes. We have even reached the point where women experts comment on men’s games. Earlier, too, women’s teams used different nicknames: the Connecticut team was once called the “Lady Huskies.” (The abbreviated name of the school — “UConn” — sounds like “Yukon,” hence the identification with Arctic dogs.) Today the women as “Huskies” just like the men.

    On the other hand, the dance world continues to refer to women as “girls” and men as “boys.” The practice is universal, regardless of the age of the individuals involved. To be sure, most dancers retire from performing at a young age, but it’s remarkable that even retired stars use these terns.

    A final question: since German still has different words for “human being” (Mensch) and “male human being” (Mann), when did we lose this distinction in English?

    1. The Old English “wer” for “male human being” seems to have faded out toward the end of the 13th century. German has “mensch” for “male human being,” as you note; its cognates also are employed in Swedish and Dutch. English is the exception….Thanks for the note on practice in the world of dance.

  2. Really enjoyed this, Hugh. The only uncorrupted female word that I can think of is ‘lady’. It seems to defy corruption and yet there is the “ladies of the night”, “lady luck”, etc. But lady itself derives, I think, from social strata. I lived for a few years in England and Lady was never confused with girl or woman. That is still true and beautifully portrayed in Downton Abbey. Helen Gray

    1. “Lady” also has had its ups and downs. For most of the 19th century, this was the term most Americans used most of the time to describe adult human females. In mid- century, New York City had a Ladies Oyster Shop, a Ladies Reading Room, and a Ladies Bowling Alley. A leading publication of the era was Ladies Magazine, which merged with Godey’s Lady’s Book. “Lady” gradually gave way to “woman” in many contexts in part because the latter was preferred by suffragists (who also preferred “suffragist” to the feminine “suffragette”). Toward the end of the century, when Home Magazine took a new name, it became Women’s Home Companion. In both the U.S. and U.K., “lady” often was used as a euphemism, elevating the status of ladies who weren’t, e.g., “charlady, lady doctor, lady dog, lady blacksmith,” and so on. Thanks, Helen, for raising this issue. Perhaps I will try a column one of these days on female-lady-woman.

  3. Jack Rosenthal

    Hugh: You might be amused by this NYT Magazine piece from 1986 . . .

    Gender Benders
    Published: August 10, 1986
    Jack Rosenthal is deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times.

    Chicken soup and beef soup. Which is masculine and which is feminine?
    In English, neither chicken nor beef nor soup has formal gender. Yet most people find the question easy to answer: chicken soup is feminine and beef soup is masculine, and that unanimity demonstrates how vast is the task of stamping out sexist words. That effort, while constructive, remains superficial; deep within language lurks the powerful force of Hidden Gender.
    Many languages use formal gender to categorize nouns and pronouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. There’s not much logic in these categories. ”In German,” Mark Twain once wrote, ”a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.” A Spanish butterfly is aptly feminine: la mariposa. A French butterfly is masculine, but at least the word sounds delicate: le papillon. A German butterfly is, as an old linguistics joke observes, masculine and sounds it: der Schmetterling.
    Beyond formal gender, societies observe a ceremonial gender. A nation is a ”she.” So is a ship, an invention, an engine. Think of ”Star Trek”; one can just hear Scotty down in the engine room calling Captain Kirk: ”I canna’ get her into warp drive, Capt’n!”
    Women’s liberation has brought a new turn toward neutering language – using firefighter instead of fireman and generalizing with ”they” instead of ”he.” This process, generally positive, can be carried to extremes. When someone once denounced ”yeoman” as sexist and urged ”yeoperson” instead, The Times groaned in an editorial, fearing the ultimate absurdity – ”woperson.” Nonsense, several letter writers promptly responded. The ultimate absurdity, they observed, would be ”woperdaughter.”
    Hidden Gender, compared with such questions of surface gender, rolls beneath the language like the tide. The chicken soup/beef soup question is just one illustration. Consider some variations on the idea, which began as a children’s game and has been elaborated by Roger W. Shuy and other sociolinguists at Georgetown University.
    Which is masculine and which is feminine:
    Ford and Chevrolet.
    Chocolate and vanilla.
    Salt and pepper.
    Pink and purple.

    From English-speakers, the answers usually come back the same, regardless of age, race, class, region — or sex. Some people see no gender at all in any of the terms. But those who do usually say that Ford, chocolate, pepper and purple are masculine.
    The consensus is not limited to these pairs. You can get the same predictability by making up other combinations – coffee and tea, shoes and boots, skis and skates, plane and train.
    Why does almost everyone label chicken soup feminine? One obvious explanation is that beef connotes cattle — big, solid, stolid animals. Chickens are small, frail, agile. Why does almost everyone label Chevrolet feminine? Perhaps for reasons of sound. Ford ends in a tough, blunt consonant, almost as masculine-sounding as ”Mack truck.” By comparison, Chevro-lay seems graceful and flexible.
    Why do so many people label vanilla feminine? Sound is probably part of it, but also color and character. Chocolate, being darker and with a more pronounced taste, is masculine in this pairing. Likewise for pepper and purple.
    Consider the attributes associated with masculine: solid, blunt, more pronounced, and those associated with feminine: frail, graceful, light. They do not arise from the words themselves, but from the pairings. What the game exposes is that Hidden Gender is relative.
    In assigning gender to one word or the other, we expose attitudes so deeply embedded in our culture that most of us, male or female, macho or feminist, share them. We turn values into gender into communication.
    Try playing the game with single words instead of pairs. When you ask people the gender of fork, you’ll get blank looks. Hidden Gender only shows up when people are asked to give relative importance to two words.
    Which is masculine and which is feminine: knife or fork? Usually, the answer is that fork is feminine. But why? There’s nothing inherently feminine about the word fork. The answer is obvious when you try a different pair. Which is masculine and which is feminine: fork or spoon?
    Purging language of sexist terms is worth doing for its own sake, but the superficiality of the effort should also be recognized. Whether one refers to ocean liners or God with ”she” is a cosmetic matter. Hidden Gender endures, and the only way to alter it is to alter the culture on which it feeds.
    Here’s the Beef
    AS MEAT SEEMS TO FALL out of the American diet, yielding to fish and pasta, meat seems to be falling into American slang, notably in the ways we express disrespect.
    ”Baloney” has been around at least since 1900 as a way to say ”nonsense,” and Rob Reiner, Archie Bunker’s television son-in-law, was surely not the first person called ”meathead.” ”Turkey,” denoting a flop or a disaster, won new prominence in the 1970’s. (Why, one reporter covering President Jimmy Carter once asked another, do they always carry a fresh turkey on Air Force One? Answer: spare parts.) The newer pejorative terms relate to sausage. In a television interview last April, Phil Donahue challenged the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson with comments from a book critical of his headline-hunting ways. ”He seems to be saying -very cleverly if obliquely . . . that you are a hot dog.” Mr. Jackson rejected the idea that he’s a flamboyant show-off, demonstrating that he clearly understands the new meaning that has been attaching itself to the term over the last 20 years.
    The usage quite likely derives from the nickname given to a 1960’s plastic foam surfboard, sheathed in fiberglass, which lent itself to fast stunts. On the ski slopes, ”hot dog” has come to describe a whole new specialty. Hot doggers fly off jumps waggling skis and bodies in bizarre poses like the daffy (one ski forward, the other back) and the helicopter (360-degree turns before, if successful, landing).
    While hot dog has come to mean a show-off, it has become fashionable to use weenie, from wiener, to mean a wimp, an indecisive or timid person. Listen to what Gen. John W. Vogt Jr., a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last February, opposing proposals to give more power to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: ”If the Chairman is a weenie, it is not going to work.” Last March, Time magazine said that Roger Stone, a prominent Washington political consultant, ”openly derides . . . Vice President Bush as a ‘weenie.’ ”
    That kind of name-calling may illustrate politics at its wurst, but Mr. Bush, rising above it, has not yet been heard to beef.

    1. Thanks, Jack. I always enjoyed the NYT Magazine’s “On Language” column, whether by Bill Safire or his top summer substitute and it is amazing that we both came up with “Gender Benders” as a headline. Great minds, etc., etc., etc.! My favorite example of political correctness in this department was the suggestion that “manhole covers” in Berkeley, CA, be changed to “personhole covers.” This was nixed by a councilperson (sic), who maintained that “The cover on a sewer is not an acceptable desexed word.” And thanks, too, for reminding me to reread Mark Twain’s essay on German. As I recall, it is a hoot.

  4. Delfin Carbonell

    Of course, your post is perfect and thought provoking.
    In your sentence: “The answer tells us a lot about the English language” I would delete “English”.
    Years ago a “cartera” in Spanish was a “wallet”. The word now also refers to the “mailwoman” who delivers letters -read invoices- to my mailbox -not malebox-. Of course, the “cartero” was the man who brought the “cartas”.
    To read your post made my day.

  5. Peggy Major

    Really interesting,however I am just so happy for these basketball players who don’t have to play half the court, and can take more than three bounces!!! It was the most frustrating sport, but that good Mrs. Newton got us through it.
    Hugh, thank you so much for sharing your writing. I really enjoyed the education. Great hearing from you.

    1. Yes — I remember those three-bounce, half-court games. Those rules seemed odd to me even at the time, and now they seem positively antediluvian. Maybe some day tennnis rules will be changed to allow women to play five-set matches! Good hearing from you, Hugh

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