In the English language, the pairs man/woman and male/female both look as if one gender or sex was considered a special case for it is denoted by putting an arbitrary prefix (wo-, fe-) before the default case (man, male).

It has been asked before whether this is actually the case etymologically, and the answer was “partially” (woman < wif+man). However, since *werman or *wereman is antiquated, what possible substitutes are there for the pair man/woman or either part thereof when you want to distinguish by gender (so cannot use person, people or human) without the implied sexism of marked and unmarked words?

The ones I can think of as a non-native speaker are either too formal, like gent/lady, or too informal, e.g. guy/gal and lad/lass, or otherwise inadequate for the general case, e.g. boy/girl. Using a French loan word man/fem(me) or a contraction/neologism man/*wom is problematic because man is also still used in a generic sense (mankind etc.), which cannot be replaced by human easily.

Likewise, which alternatives are there for male/female used as either nouns or adjectives?

I would assume masculine/feminine was a possible and preferable alternative, though available as adjectives only. The contraction or neologism male/*fele shows nice symmetry, especially with man/*fem as introduced above, but it’s artificial, and so is *mascule/*femine.

  • I'd add that in other languages this "derivation" of woman from man is not that 'evident' : hombre y mujer, homme et femme, uomo e donna, Mann und Frau.
    – user66974
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 12:14
  • 2
    The actual history is certainly sexist, whatever about certain perceived histories. Taking a word that covers all humans, whether weres, wyfs or childern and applying it only to the adult males values the adult males more in considering them the default case.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 11:13
  • Do you take issue with the portions of 'man' and 'male' specifically? Or are you just wanting variety?
    – t0rn
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 15:31
  • 5
    Do you have any evidence to back up your assumption in the first paragraph? It seems to me (as a feminist) that you are perhaps constructing a strawman version of feminist ideas.
    – mikeagg
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 7:26
  • 4
    Womyn and wimmin get used: thefreedictionary.com/Wimmen Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 14:13

4 Answers 4


You are looking for a practical answer, not a theoretical one: politically correct terms that are acceptable in practice. So I looked for competing terms that are actually being adopted in the wild.

According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the proposed replacement for woman that shows evidence of adoption in literature is womyn. It is now used about one time in five thousand in place of woman.

The proposed replacement for the plural form women that shows evidence of adoption is wimmin. It is now used about one time in ten thousand in place of women.

These frequencies are very small, but have been trending upward since around 1975. They are evidence that these are the primary competing terms, but not evidence of widespread acceptance in literature.

Unlike womyn/wimmen, there is not yet a competing term for female. The term *fele has been proposed satirically, but no effort has been made to promote its actual use and there is no evidence in literature that it is gaining acceptance.

  • I’m awarding the bounty to this answer, although I was hoping for something more – um – ambitious, but if this the best accepted or only notable proposal, so be it. Note that the terms had been mentioned before in a comment by @WayfaringStranger.
    – Crissov
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 16:15
  • A potential issue with wimmin is that it is similar to attempts to transcribe a certain rural accent, which is often associated with a stereotypically discriminatory worldview - the opposite of the intended message. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 17:31

"Female" comes via French from Latin femella, the diminutive of femina "woman". It does not come from "male" and there is no reason for any feminist to want to ban it.

"Woman" does come from "man", but for some reason no one seems to object to it.

  • 2
    I just edited the question to highlight that actual history is not important really.
    – Crissov
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 12:21
  • 1
    Well said! I'm for equality not unnecessary witch hunts of particular, traditional words. (Not that I'm saying that's what you intended Crissov - it may well not have been.)
    – t0rn
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 15:50
  • You are right, @t0rn, I don’t necessarily want to use alternatives, but wonder why this seems to be criticized so little by feminists. Maybe that’s the answer, though: there simply are no good alternatives.
    – Crissov
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 20:24
  • 1
    Perhaps it isn't criticized because "woman" derives from words meaning "woman (wif) human being (man)" and not from words meaning wife-man in the modern sense. See www.etymonline.com
    – Egox
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 15:23

I hereby incorporate by reference my answer to a similar question on Linguistics.SE

To add another thought, as long as there are people who call a woman a "woman", who have sexist attitudes in their hearts, that term (or any other term) will be sexist. So until there is no sexism, the politically correct people will need to be outfoxing the sexists by coining new terms. This should be related to the general process whereby enemy tribes (of the same ancestors) gradually develop different languages.

  • 2
    What you’re describing has been called the euphemism treadmill by Steven Pinker. It’s a very active pattern with other -isms (e.g. negro, colored, black, African …) and is encountered with sexism as well (e.g. Miss, Ms. …). However, your major point over at Linguistics is that sexism is “culturally relative” and I agree, but whenever one sex or gender is taken to be the standard or default and the other(s) a deviation or specialization, that’ll be considered sexist some day. Generic he or man is therefore seen as problematic. I wonder why the words wo|man and fe|male aren’t yet.
    – Crissov
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 9:18
  • 1
    @Crissov The "euphemism treadmill" is a great concept and I'm glad to see it brought up. There are about ten questions now on the site that refer to it. But I think it's not applicable to "woman" and "female". "Woman" and "female" are not generally regarded as derogatory. Respelling them is not an attempt at euphemism. It's an attempt at "consciousness raising". I discussed consciousness raising in another answer.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 17:47
  • @MετάEd You’re right about current English, but I meant that the euphemism treadmill might apply to possible substitutes for woman and female if they were adopted not by heart but as a fig leaf. In German, for instance, Frau replaced Weib as least marked term for ‘woman’ (and ‘wife’), but ‘female’ is still weiblich.
    – Crissov
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 20:30

The only gender neutral word that comes to my mind is "lady". It however isn't sufficient in all contexts. Language such as English adopted words from many different languages. If we are unable to find the word in English then we should take them from other languages. I would suggest a Hindi alternative to that. In hindi female is referred as 'स्त्री'(strī ) or नारी (nārī). Synonyms of both in english are "Woman" and "Female"

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