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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.

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    My favorite bar has its bathrooms labelled XX and XY. I think it would be very hard to make the case that XX is a derivative of XY. – Dan Bron Jun 8 '15 at 11:52
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    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 Jul 10 '15 at 7:26
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    Womyn and wimmin get used: thefreedictionary.com/Wimmen – Wayfaring Stranger Jul 12 '15 at 14:13
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    I downvoted, because it's contradictory/contrarian, demeaning, self-flagellating and catering to something that i strongly identify against. English's expressive, rich enough as is, synonyms, antonyms and whatnot are fine. This can be unconstructive, ideological and political propaganda, although subtle and carefully worded. Isn't really an English usage question, but a discussion about meta/gender. Take it to tumblr, and see what they'll cook up. "I want something that tries to hide women as "counterparts of men", while leaving the distinction" - what's the point? – Sakatox Mar 8 '16 at 22:53
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    You'll fare better in asking the question if you ask it without mentioning your underlying assumptions about feminism. The question is interesting on its own merit. By inserting your assumptions about feminism, you come across as having a need to "mansplain" why feminists are silly for thinking such thoughts. – Kit Z. Fox Mar 11 '16 at 14:31
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"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.

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    I just edited the question to highlight that actual history is not important really. – Crissov Jun 8 '15 at 12:21
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    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 Jul 9 '15 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 Jul 9 '15 at 20:24
  • 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 Mar 6 '16 at 15:23
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+100

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 Mar 12 '16 at 16:15
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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.

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    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 Mar 9 '16 at 9:18
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    @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 Mar 11 '16 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 Mar 11 '16 at 20:30
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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"

protected by tchrist Oct 10 '16 at 17:13

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