PAST MASTER - noun: a person who has done something many times before and has become very skilled at doing it "He's a past master at finding ways to get out of trouble." http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/past%20master

noun: A person who is particularly skilled at a specified activity or art.A person who has held the position of master in an organization ‘he’s a past master at keeping his whereabouts secret’ http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/past-master

I always thought "past master" was a gender neutral phrase applied to both men and women, and "past mistress" would refer to a past lover. I've heard "past mistress" in reference to women, though, and it had no love connotation. Has "past master" lost its "gender neutral" property? Or am I wrong and it never had any?

  • As much as "person" in the definitions is. Why the question now? As for mistress, that's a long story, nothing to do with 'past master' alone.
    – Kris
    Oct 8, 2014 at 13:06
  • As people have wised up and recognized women's mastery over the full spectrum of performance, master has come to be gender neutral. If someone is creating the neologistic phrase past mistress, it's an indication of a retrograde slide into sexual distinction that is without semantic, logical or social value.
    – bib
    Oct 8, 2014 at 13:17
  • What makes you ask this question? You always thought it was gender neutral, the two definitions you found state it as gender neutral, so what makes you think that it is not gender neutral anymore? The simple fact that there are people out there that still think it is necessary to give women a separate word for the same concept? That is their problem, not yours :)
    – oerkelens
    Oct 8, 2014 at 13:58
  • @oerkelens What made me ask this question? Because I found "past mistress" in a dictionary. That should be a good reason. PAST MISTRESS a woman who is proficient or thorough in some particular respect : adept <a past mistress of storytelling merriam-webster.com/dictionary/past%20mistress
    – Centaurus
    Oct 8, 2014 at 14:32
  • Ah, the past mistress dictionary reference is more of an indication of its actual use than "I heard it used", so maybe it deserves to be mentioned in the question :) That said, I think FF's answer says it all :)
    – oerkelens
    Oct 8, 2014 at 14:42

1 Answer 1


The editors at Chambers Universal Learners' Dictionary obviously anticipated precisely this kind of misguided literal-mindedness when choosing their example usage...

a past master - someone who is extremely skilful (at an activity which requires skill)
She is a past master at the art of getting her own way

Emphasis mine, but I think it's reasonable to suppose the editors intended to imply the same.

FWIW, Google Books claims over 10,000 written instances of "she is a past master". Which may not mean much - it initially claims 1840 instances of "she is a past mistress", but if I scroll through there are actually only 33 (almost all from the last decade or two, reflecting modern "anti-sexist" usages by some writers).

  • Interestingly, that "anti-sexist" usage tends to be seen as sexist by others (including leading feminists).
    – oerkelens
    Oct 8, 2014 at 14:01
  • Before anyone else, in addition to @oerklens, asks why I'm asking this question, let me say that I heard it and then searched for its meaning: PAST MISTRESS a woman who is proficient or thorough in some particular respect : adept <a past mistress of storytelling merriam-webster.com/dictionary/past%20mistress That made me wonder, because I had always thought "past master" was gender neutral.
    – Centaurus
    Oct 8, 2014 at 14:35
  • 1
    @user463240: You have to bear in mind that any language reflects the society/culture of its speakers. And realistically, Anglophone societies 150 years ago when the usage first arose were not "gender neutral" in the way they are today. Some people are bothered by this in some contexts, which is why they try to introduce the rather quirky alternative past mistress. But so far I've never heard anyone seriously complain about the verb usage in contexts like By the age of 12 she had mastered the piano. Oct 8, 2014 at 15:18
  • 1
    It would be hilarious to hear "she had mistressed the piano".
    – Centaurus
    Oct 8, 2014 at 15:39
  • I understand that, FF. What surprised me was that I heard it and thought it didn't exist. But when I searched, there it was in a dictionary.
    – Centaurus
    Oct 8, 2014 at 15:41

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