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A couple days ago I needed the correct word for a female aviator, which I figured was aviatress. A dictionary.com search provided aviatress, aviatrice and aviatrix as acceptable choices. Coincidentally, I had just read this EL&U post about the origin of the -trix suffix, and so I explored other Latin-based agent nouns. I found that legislatress exists along side legislatrix as does benefactress with benefactrix and orator with oratress. Not so with dominatrix, though. It seems to have maintained only the -trix suffix.

Dictionary.com has this to say about the -trix suffix in modern use:

Most nouns in -trix have dropped from general use, so that terms like aviatrix, benefactrix, legislatrix, oratrix, and proprietrix occur rarely or not at all in present-day English.

Dominatrix has maintained, and most people would only ever use it in the realms of sado-masochism and sexual role play.

My question is, why has the -trix suffix fallen off and been replaced by the more sibilant "-tress"? And, have we avoided the -trix suffix to avoid any unintended association with the sado-masochistic sense of dominatrix?

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I think it's just that the -or suffix isn't generally thought of as implying gender today (in the movie industry we increasingly see references to female actors, for example).

Effectively, there's a general tendency towards either switching to existing gender-neutral terms, or forcing the main (invariably male) form to be treated that way.

I'd also say the -trix suffix isn't really "productive" today. If we really want that distinction, we'd probably use -ess (in which context I'll just note the Collins definition protectrix = protectress)

I wouldn't give much credence to the idea that we avoid -trix because of associations with the only significant survivor dominatrix. I think we avoid the form because it's dated/archaic - but in that one particular case it's been retained because it's a very specialised context where issues of "gender equality" don't really arise. Nobody complains about the "sexist language" of Miss whiplash either!

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  • Also note this NGram showing the comparative irrelevance of proprietrix as against the "standard form" proprietress. – FumbleFingers Jan 23 '13 at 22:27
  • This was my wife's argument, too: that modern post-feminist English is doing away with feminine suffixes; and I agree. But some feminine suffixes remain where gender is non-essential (enchantress, sorceress, hostess). As well, I can't imagine calling someone a dominatrix if only to refer to her dominating qualities and not her leather bustier and handcuffs. – tylerharms Jan 24 '13 at 11:03
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    @tylerharms: Quite so. Next time I use one of those "dial a dominatrix" services, I shall certainly demand a refund if Ms Whiplash arrives without all the expected paraphernalia! – FumbleFingers Jan 24 '13 at 16:05
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The college I attended (several decades ago) had, instead of a "student body president," an "executor" or "executrix," depending on the gender of the officeholder. A quick Google search yields 9420 matches for executress and 1.26 million matches for executrix, suggesting that executrix remains the more common feminine form of executor.

I don't know whether the -trix ending has fallen into particular disfavor, nor whether, if so, that disfavor is due in any way to the influence of dominatrix. I do think that, in general, adding feminine endings to occupations that normally lack them (as with comedienne or poetess or aviatrix) strikes a discordant note in modern usage because such a word choice may seem to imply that the person's performance of an objectively gender-neutral role is inseparable in some way from her being female. Why should a woman with expertise in grammar be labeled a grammarienne?

The main exception to this tendency involves the term actress, which seems to carry no invidious or patronizing overtones; other words such as heiress may also qualify as exceptions.

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  • Even actress, though, is becoming dated. As this Link suggests. – tylerharms Jan 24 '13 at 10:54
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There is another pejorative influence; meretrix, meaning 'prostitute' in Latin, is the root of meretricious, meaning 'second-rate', and there are various quotations about 'the meretrix with her merry tricks'. I wouldn't say it was an important influence, but presumably it might make some people avoid the -trix suffix.

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