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The other day, I had a little argument with a friend. He asserted that if the principal of a school is a female, she would not be called a "headmaster", rather - a headmistress.

But I disagreed with him, saying that headmaster is a gender-neutral term. I couldn't believe that people still used the word "headmistress"

Turns out I was wrong. So my question is about the word "master" - does the word have some masculine origin?

Or is it that "mistress" goes with "mister"?

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Adel, a gender-neutral term for it would be headteacher dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/… , at least in the UK. From a British perspective, the word principal seems distinctly American. – Tristan r Feb 12 '14 at 0:51
To add further confusion: Pembroke College and St Catharine's College Oxford, and Yale University, have all had female Masters. The late Queen Mother was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports; and the Queen is Duke of Lancaster and Duke of Normandy. The capital letters are important here, of course. – Andrew Leach Feb 12 '14 at 8:37
And even when I was a humble parish councillor we would address Madam Chairman! Though there were those who objected to this and would actually refer to 'the Chair', which Madam didn't like at all. – WS2 Feb 12 '14 at 9:33
I have never ever heard of a woman being awarded a "mistress's degree". – Hot Licks Feb 26 at 20:40

English is in a state of flux with regard to the use of gender-differentiated terms for professions and nationalities. For some speakers (like my parents), female terms must be used when the referent is known to be female. Such speakers have to say she is a waitress, not she is a waiter.

However, for other speakers (like me), words like waitress, actress, and Frenchwoman are, like scrumptious and copacetic, recognisable as English but usable only with ironic or pedantic undertones. I would comfortably say she is a waiter to refer to what my parents call a waitress.

Not all such words have deteriorated at the same rate. Where the female versions themselves refer to outmoded or old-fashioned professions or roles, I am happy to use the feminine, for instance, washerwoman or nun. (But I would only use nun to refer a Christian. In the past, I’ve referred to a Buddhist nun as a monk, leading an academic colleague to think I’d mistaken the woman for a man, because of her shaved head. Being 40 years my senior, he wasn’t aware that monk in this context was simply gender neutral for me.)

Tying all of this back to your question: you’re both right, but you’re right about the conventions of different speech communities. Your friend has correctly described a more conservative dialect. You (like me) conform to a more innovative one. I’m not sure that dictionaries have come to reflect this shift in usage. But if you google "she is headmaster" / "she is a headmaster" / "she is the headmaster" (plus "-daughter" for convenience), you’ll appreciate that there are a reasonable number of speakers like us.

On the question of the origin of the master, @Jim correctly observes that magister is the Latin root of English master, and in Latin magister was a masculine word. However, if you ask Who was the greatest actor ever?, this would not normally be taken to preclude a woman’s name being given in response. In other words, masculine forms are default rather than male-specific. (They require additional context for male-specific readings; e.g., Excluding actresses, who was the greatest actor ever?) I’ve seen various studies of languages in which gender indication is obligatory (including French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, Spanish), and the same holds there: masculine forms are (only with specific exceptions) default forms, covering both genders. I don’t know if evidence is available for Latin, but my guess would be that, as a well behaved Indo-European language, it could reasonably be expected to behave similarly.

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I certainly prefer "she is a waiter" to "she is a waitron", but there's no such long-standing neutral term as there is with principal. I don't know what you've got against scrumptious. – Jon Hanna Feb 11 '14 at 22:22
My dad’s use of scrumptious when we were growing up used to send my brothers and me into a mix of cringes and giggles. I’m willing to admit that that may be a family proclivity. – Daniel Harbour Feb 11 '14 at 22:27
Does anyone understand the purpose of gender-neutral terms? Will it one day be out of order to refer to a man or a woman? – WS2 Feb 11 '14 at 22:57
@DanielHarbour I fully understand why the idea of gender equality is sacrosanct. But I have never understood why a common gender identity should be promoted. Is not diversity the spice of life? – WS2 Feb 12 '14 at 0:02
This state of flux is artificially forced by feminist movement, isn't it? Well, it's the irony that feminists in Poland force the usage of feminine forms for occupations, using the same arguments. My logic teacher have told me, that the false argument can imply contradicting anwers (leaving implication correct). Just a side argument. – Danubian Sailor Feb 12 '14 at 8:33

In theory, mistress is the precise female equivalent of master, being the translation of Latin domina rather than dominus. In practice master (particularly as a verb) is used in many contexts where dominance is more relevant than gender, and mistress is used only in a few specialised contexts. Education is one of them: though games teacher is a neutral term, a games mistress is always female, and one of the senior bodies in British independent education is called the "Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference" (confusingly abbreviated to HMC).

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I don't know if NASUWT still exists (National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers). It was a rival of the NUT (National Union of Teachers) – WS2 Feb 12 '14 at 0:46
I'd use the term "master" for a woman only when it denotes having mastered a skill. Like "she is a master carpenter". – jwenting Feb 12 '14 at 9:20
@WS2 NASUWT still exists but the name isn't trying to make any kind of a point about differences in terminology for male and female teachers: it's an artifact of the union's formation by the merger of the National Association of Schoolmasters and the Union of Women Teachers in the 1970s. I guess they wanted to retain the "brand recognition" of the existing names, rather than make up a new one. (Ironically, the NAS was originally the National Association of Men Teachers [sic], which broke away from the NUT in opposition to the NUT's 1919 endorsement of equal pay for male and female teachers.) – David Richerby Feb 12 '14 at 11:08
@jwenting And your master carpenter probably doesn't have a Mistress of Arts degree. :-) – David Richerby Feb 12 '14 at 11:09
@DavidRicherby Nor even a Spinster of Arts degree! And yes, I had a friend, in the 1960s who defended his membership of the NAS entirely on the original grounds. What was a reasonable salary for a woman married to a professional husband, he argued, (and many leaders in the NUT were well-off married women) was unacceptable for 'a married man' with a wife who looked after children and 'didn't go out to work'. It was a vehemently held opinion in much of society at a time before good child-care facilities became available, and women working became fashionable. – WS2 Feb 12 '14 at 11:59

If you were to look up the two words (headmaster and headmistress), you would see that they are the man and woman, respectively, who is the head of a U.S. private school or a British school.

Furthermore, the two words, master and mistress, can be traced to the Old French words, maistre and maistresse, and the Modern French words, maître and maîtresse.

Both are derived from the Latin magister, from which we also get "magistrate" (magistratus).

So to answer your question ("does the word master have some masculine origin?), you can look at the definition in The Latin Dictionary, where it states that magister is a masculine noun. In Latin, nouns have fixed gender, and in this case it is masculine. This differs from the Romantic languages that descended from Vulgar Latin (as in non-standard, common, as opposed to classical Latin), where it is common to have both masculine and feminine forms of some nouns.

(reference link)

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I’m not sure that dictionary definitions are what OP is after here. I took the question as wanting to determine whether those definitions are still accurate. What you write certainly holds of many speakers' English, but for others the gender distinction is a vanishing feature of the language. Check out my answer and let me know if you think otherwise. – Daniel Harbour Feb 11 '14 at 22:35
Oops, sorry @Jim : I take that comment back. I misunderstood the question! :-0 – Daniel Harbour Feb 11 '14 at 23:46
What about the Latina dictionary? – Buttle Butkus Feb 13 '14 at 1:23

In Britain, when I was at school, (1950s) the head was always a headmaster or a headmistress. Single-sex education was far more common than it is today. Boys' schools had headmasters and girls' headmistresses.

The terms survived the move to co-education and certainly well through the time that my children were at school in the 1980s and 90s, their heads were either Headmasters or Headmistresses.

More recently there has been a move away from the terms to calling them simply 'Head'. 'The Head wants to see you in his/her study'.

The other teachers, in my day were known as masters and mistresses, though those terms have mostly given way to 'teachers'. However in a lot of traditional schools they do remain. There is perhaps still a slightly higher cachet associated with giving your occupation as 'schoolmaster' rather than plain 'schoolteacher'.

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There was and is no reason why a girls' school should not have a headmaster. But +1 for the overview. – TimLymington Feb 11 '14 at 22:25
When my son was at a state, all-boys, Grammar school in the 1990s, it did have, for a very brief period, a woman head. But I cannot remember her official title. – WS2 Feb 11 '14 at 22:28
WS2 in more recent times, the word headteacher has been in common use, in British schools. Headmaster and headmistress have been less common. – Tristan r Feb 12 '14 at 0:47
@Tristanr Yes, of course, why did I not include that? - Headteacher is the current word. – WS2 Feb 12 '14 at 7:25
@TimLymington not in theory, in practice however commonly boys' schools had almost exclusively male staff, girls' schools female staff. This might stem back to the times when such schools were run by the church, placing nuns in charge of educating girls and friars of educating boys (my father went to such a friar run boys' school, which was next door to the nun run girls' school in the town he lived in in the 1940s). – jwenting Feb 12 '14 at 9:22

"Master" has at least two slightly different uses. It's gendered up to a point, with "mistress" the female form.

One use means (roughly) a person in authority over one or more others, as for example a teacher over students or an employer over household servants, and there are several specific relationships it has been most commonly used for. This usage traditionally was strongly gendered.

"Headmaster" is this first usage, but the "master" refers to the teachers that the head is in charge of (the headmaster is the head among the masters), not the headmaster himself (he is not the master of heads). In schools with both sexes of teacher, "master" is being used to mean all "masters and mistresses" (the male embraces the female). So I don't suppose that it would be technically incorrect to refer to a woman as the headmaster. However, I don't think it's done in practice: those who care to skip the tradition of gendered titles will use "headteacher" or "head". You could even perhaps argue that it's a kind of inaccuracy (despite being established usage) to call a woman in charge of men, or of a mixed group of men and women, the "headmistress". This doesn't change the usage, of course, and any argument based on referring to a mixed group by the male form but a female group by the female form is going to seem out-dated.

"Mistress" does also go with "Mister", because "Mister" was originally a variant of "Master" although the two are no longer interchangeable as titles. "Mrs." was originally a variant of "Mistress". Just to be confusing, so was "Miss" and so is "Ms."

As an aside, the other use means (roughly) a person who is expert in their profession ("a master craftsman") and I think is less gendered. I speculate that in the relevant centuries, women were rarely considered experts in their professions! Of course such people might well have a managerial role as well, but I do not believe that is what "master" refers to here. Rather, they are "masters" of their craft.

There isn't any such phrase as "mistress craftswoman", but you could say "mistress of her craft". You also might say "master craftswoman" if you want a gendered term, "master craftsman" if you apply male gendered terms to both men and women, "master crafter" or whatever if you prefer a neutral term and are willing to accept "master" as neutral in this context. Each strategy exists, irrespective of what we think of them, and not everyone uses one strategy exclusively for all kinds of gendered term.

"Master" is also a verb, and there is no corresponding verb "to mistress".

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The short answer is no, the word master does not denote masculinity.

The verb and adjective forms are utterly without controversy, and you could easily, intuitively write sentences like "She mastered the school's technique" or "She is a master bassist."

The noun form is only controversial to the most hardline traditionalists. Notwithstanding their objections from the fringes of society, you could otherwise write sentences like "She is master of the ship" without attracting argument.

Nor does the word master itself have a male-specific etymological base. It derives from the Latin magnus, which is a masculine word in the sense that Latin had a grammatical gender, but not in the sense that somehow the concept of magn- could only be applied to males. (And there was the feminine equivalent magna.)

So, whence does the controversy arise?

It's because, in the past, people believed that it was very important to know whether the holder of any given role was male or female. And they structured their societies--and gave so few rights to females--such that in many instances it actually was important to know. I'll get back to this point in a moment.

In modern times we have largely divorced roles from any explicit sex-specificity, and a person's sex therefore doesn't matter in the consideration of the roles that person performs. The chairperson's sex has no bearing on that person's ability to be chair, nor does the firefighter's sex, nor the waiter's, nor the actor's, and so forth.

But old ideas do not die easily, and there are still many people who insist that we should use role descriptors to also indicate a person's sex, even though the usefulness is obsolete. And there are bits and pieces in the English language onto which these diehard traditionalists cling.

The best such example, in the context of your query about the worst master, is the word mistress, the feminized corruption of master by way of Old French. In olden times many roles existed as sex pairs. A landed estate would have had a master, denoting that individual's authority over the affairs of his house. Quite often the master would have been married, and his wife would have been granted considerable parallel authority under her husband to govern those affairs of the house traditionally identified as being within the distaff domain (i.e., women's affairs). To convey this concept quickly, the word mistress arose to denote the master's female counterpart.

These days such a usage is virtually obsolete. Exceptions do still exist; the White House still has a traditional mistress-type role for the First Lady; nonetheless the role has become an anachronism as today most couples divide their domestic affairs circumstantially, without respect to sex, and with each successive generation this de-gendering of roles is becoming more thorough.

Be that as it may, the fact that the actual, historical role of mistress is obsolete poses no dissuasion to those who still believe that we must use roles to identify people's sex. To these traditionalists, a female of any sort of authority is a mistress, never a master, and thus, to them, the term master is masculine and reserved for male use (although they would not object to the verb and adjectival forms of the word).

I would be negligent to finish this reply without a few words on the feminine diminutive more broadly, of which mistress is but one instance. The most common feminine diminutives in English are -ess (as with mistress) and -ette (as with bachelorette). By their nature, feminine diminutives are degrading, implying that somehow for a female to hold a role means they alter the role itself to reflect their sex. The English-speaking world has been moving away from the feminine diminuative for a long time, and another commenter made an excellent example of this gradation in action by invoking the words waitress, which many people still accept (though some think of it as quaint), authoress, which virtually no one uses, and Jewess, which is nowadays used only as an offensive slur.

In all likelihood this trend will continue as society continues toward its recognition that a person's sex is independent of their capacity to fulfill a role, like that of author, and moreover that being a female does not make for an inferior individual. Specialized exceptions will linger the longest, like actress, because the film industry segregates awards.

Thus, for all the protestations of the hardliners, in my assessment you can safely ignore them and use master of females howsoever you wish.

Lastly, here's a bit of data: The words master and mistress have both in sustained long-term decline, with a minor resurgence recently that may or may not be statistical noise. Either way, the data suggest that the very concept of mastership is fading from the social currency, and with it the tagalong concept of the mistress. That's in addition to the decline in mistress as a result of our society becoming less sexist.


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+1 - excellent argument for your point. Welcome to EL&U. – medica Feb 13 '14 at 3:03
Excellent writing on the subject, though I believe “worst master” is a typo. – Tyler James Young Feb 18 '14 at 21:25

It does.

Generally, the term principal would be used, rather than either headmaster or headmistress, because principal is gender-neutral.

After all, why should one use headmaster of women, not headmistress of men?

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In Britain, they're head teachers,, although that makes me envision someone at a podium addressing a room of disembodied heads. – choster Feb 11 '14 at 22:17
@choster, and sometimes just heads. – Jon Hanna Feb 11 '14 at 22:19
choster, that's a good point. The word principal, is not normally used in this context, in the UK. – Tristan r Feb 12 '14 at 0:43
@Tristanr it certainly was in the UK schools I went to. – Jon Hanna Feb 12 '14 at 0:51
Jon, like many other things in life and the universe, there are exceptions to what is normal. – Tristan r Feb 12 '14 at 0:56

Master is actually the forerunner of Mister. It used to be used to refer to men and boys.

In modern English, mister (or mr.) is used to address men, while master is used as a form of address only for boys.

About the word headmaster or schoolmaster specifically, Wikipedia states that:

"The word schoolmaster, or simply master, formerly referred to a male school teacher. This usage survives in British independent schools, both secondary and "preparatory", but is generally obsolete elsewhere."

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Some University colleges have a 'Master' as the head e.g. The Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. I am not sure what happens when the post is held by a woman. Does she become the Mistress of Trinity ? – WS2 Feb 12 '14 at 8:31
@WS2 No: see my comment on the question. – Andrew Leach Feb 12 '14 at 8:45

Both master and mister come from latin magister that is masculin for chief, teacher, feminine being magistra.

In English, mistress is the feminine form of master, it comes from French maitresse, which in turn comes from Latin.

The usage is then up to you, in modern times, in English, it's common to use the masculine form to denote both genders.

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