I have been hearing that many gendered terms are simply being absorbed into the masculine equivalent, while many other words are retaining their usage. A few examples are the terms "actress" becoming "actor", and "headmistress" becoming "headmaster". There are others, however, that manage to remain, such as "aviatrix" for a female aviator.

Can someone please explain if/why the feminine terms are dying out, and whether or not you prefer the use of gendered terms? I have personally always liked the use of female terms because I think it grants respect to the woman concerning whatever field she is in.

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    I, too, prefer the female words in most cases. It is a diversity being lost. It may have something to do with exaggerated political-correctness, a frequent source of uglification, but I'm not sure. Dec 8 '13 at 18:59
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    @Barrie, does that not depend on the school? Certainly, when Albus Dumbledore dies in the Harry Potter series, Minerva McGonagall who replaces him becomes headmaster of Hogwarts—not head teacher. Wikipedia suggests (¶3) that ‘headmaster’ is still used in the UK in some grammar schools and most private schools. Also, I would say that ‘actress’ is much more common than ‘aviatrix’. I’ve used the former many times, but I highly doubt I’ve ever used the latter in my life. Dec 8 '13 at 18:59
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    The British newspaper, ‘The Guardian’, in an attempt to prove its egalitarian credentials, once said of a demonstrably heterosexual male star of screen and stage that he had an eye for ‘pretty, young actors’. Dec 8 '13 at 19:08
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    I suspect that this is happening because some of those terms have long been conventionally somewhat demeaning. For instance, the term "actress" has always seemed to me to mean a non-serious female actor, and not simply a female actor. I'm guessing that this trend is reaction to these subtle/regional/occasional connotations
    – Dodgie
    Dec 8 '13 at 19:12
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    @Cerberus If you were female, how would you feel if you were identified as being a "woman doctor" while your male colleague simply a "doctor"? And if you were a "woman bus driver" instead of a "bus driver", wouldn't the fact that your gender had to be mentioned be regarded as being patronising, offensive, objectionable etc.? A pilot is a profession, an architect and a lawyer likewise, as is an actor. I don't see why there has to be a distinction.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 9 '13 at 10:33

I think the main reason why gendered terms tend to fall out of use is a tendency to symmetry - we have so many words for professions in English that never had a gendered form, eg. 'teacher' so that the few forms we have look more marked than they are.

In a language like German were there is a productive suffix for female gender, eg Lehrerin (teacher+fem) this symmetry already exists. And since there is a possible gendered form for every neutral form in German, gendered forms are not that exceptional.
There had never been a female Bundeskanzler of Germany before 2005, but it was self-evident that Angela Merkel's title would be Bundeskanzlerin.

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    In natively gendered languages like German and Spanish, it is ungrammatical to not gender professional names. English doesn't have that constraint.
    – Mitch
    Dec 9 '13 at 14:51
  • Re: the word for a member of the teaching profession, teacher, not being gendered, this is so, but, the use of this non-gendered word to refer to a member of the teaching profession largely replaces the gendered words of master, mistress, schoolmaster and schoolmistress.
    – davidlol
    Mar 11 '17 at 22:43

I believe this happens because it is seen as at best unnecessary and at worst patronising and discriminatory to distinguish a woman's profession because of her gender. There's no such thing as a pilotress or doctoress/doctress. It is on the same lines as using Ms instead of Miss/Mrs - a woman's marital status should be irrelevant in all the same circumstances where a man's status is irrelevant.

Unfortunately most professions are already masculinized, as evinced by their masculine endings and the fact that they used to be the exclusive province of men. Adding a feminine ending draws attention to the fact that this is something a bit 'different' and 'other' away from the 'norm' of being a man. Even 'human' and 'woman' have their roots in 'man' - which is supposed to be a gender neutral term for all of mankind but which, in English at any rate, relates specifically to male people and a subconscious emphasis on maleness as normal and female as 'other'.

I also think it would be a massively uphill struggle to get the world to switch to neutral terms like 'doctum', although where I work no one uses Chairman/woman any more, but simply 'Chair'. Using a female ending doesn't diminish a woman's actual ability, only prejudiced people's perception of it. Far better to ignore any original masculine endings and absorb them as neutral terms instead.

  • I used to have a "woman doctor" as a teenager, I don't remember ever calling her doctoress, but doctor. I am extremely unfamiliar with pilotress, again I think a "woman pilot" or a "female pilot" would be the more usual term. Nevertheless I do agree with your argument and explanation.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 9 '13 at 10:40
  • @Mari-LouA The word that once was used for that position (whether of medicine or otherwise) was actually spelled doctress; it dates from the 1500s, but may not have survived Queen Victoria.
    – tchrist
    Jul 11 '14 at 22:53

Regarding females in the professions, I, too, have seen a reduction in the feminine terms some years ago, probably in reaction to the rise of feminism, but gender specific nouns appear to be rising again. Ngram chart. I oppose this on the same basis you do. I believe it will take generations If ever) to find female forms of Prime Minister, since the gender is used in address, Madame Prime Minister, Madam President.

In contrast, I have been seeing the rise of they as a gender neutral singular pronoun (of which I approve.)

If a person is a writer, it would serve them well to learn to touch type.

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    It's curious that you think the reduction in gendered terms is a reaction to feminism rather than a result of feminism. Many feminists are offended by our "male is default" society and work to change that. Gender-neutral titles help in that regard, because then you don't need to worry about the gender of your subject. A doctor is a doctor, irrespective of his or her gender. But an actress is only a woman and an actor is usually only a man. This is problematic if you want to speak generically about both, or if you wish to include people who don't fall into typical gender categories. Dec 9 '13 at 18:55
  • For what it's worth, the Prime Minster of the UK (and, apparently, other Commonwealth countries), is addressed as simply "Prime Minister", regardless of gender. Dec 12 '13 at 13:25
  • @SteveMelnikoff Ministress has never been a particularly common word, although the accumulation of enough of them can be enough to create real pressure on someone.
    – tchrist
    Jul 11 '14 at 22:50

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