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At first, I thought seamster is a word used to address a male person who sews clothes and seamstress is used to address a female sewer. But there are different explanations online. FineDictionary and MW describe seamster as a gender-neutral noun.

If these descriptions are correct, what is the male version of seamstress? Can someone throw light on this topic?

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    As with many other words (for example: actor, actress), the "masculine" form of the word can be used for either gender. But in this case, the word "tailor" is probably the best; the other terms seem antiquated to me. – Laurel Oct 14 '16 at 15:02
  • @Laurel, the word tailor is also gender-neutral. Check [this][1] [1][usingenglish.com/forum/threads/… – Jarvis Oct 14 '16 at 15:07
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    Some feminine forms of occupational words have long since fallen out of use, e.g. authoress (because it's no longer seen as unusual for a woman to write books). Others, such as actress, are beginning to fall out of use. Seamstress used to be a common word because that type of sewing was traditionally done by women (as distinct from tailoring or sailmaking, done by men). In these days of more gender equality, it would seem quite reasonable to use 'seamster' for both. – Kate Bunting Oct 14 '16 at 15:13
  • @Balu_Madaraju I know it's gender neutral. We don't need to have gender specific words; this fact is reflected in occupational titles that have only been invented recently (programmer, for example). – Laurel Oct 14 '16 at 15:20
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    I have never ever encountered the word seamster; but historically -ster was usually a feminine suffix anyway. – Colin Fine Oct 14 '16 at 16:53
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Seamstress is the term that is still used:

  • a woman who can sew and make clothes or whose job is sewing and making clothes. (OLD)

It derives from seamster, which is gender-neutral but also quite rare ( see Ngram ):

seamstress (n.):

  • 1640s, with -ess + seamster (also sempster), from Old English seamestre "sewer, tailor, person whose work is sewing," from seam. Originally indicating a woman, but after a while the fem. ending -estre no longer was felt as such and a new one added.

(Etymonline)

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A tailor is a very skilled person. Not equivalent to a seamster at all. Seamster is gender neutral. A woman can also be a tailor or a seamstress.

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Michael Quinion, Ologies and Isms: Word Beginnings and Endings (2002), part of the Oxford Paperback Reference series, has this say about the suffix -ster:

-ster A person or thing associated with a an activity or quality. {Old English -estre, -istre, etc.}

Early examples referred to a woman engaged in an occupation, such as brewster, maltster, and spinster, this last originally 'a woman who spins' (the ending was the feminine equivalent of words ending in -ere, which later became -er; [cross reference omitted]. It has long been extended to activities undertaken by men such as chorister or teamster. Words in which it refers to a characteristic of the person include youngster and the US-derived oldster, as well as hipster (a person who is hip, who follows the latest trends and fashions). Less often, the ending refers to objects, roadster being a rare example.

It often has a derogatory sense: tipster, rhymester, prankster. Many of these are more common in the US than in Britain: gamester, gangster, huckster, jokester, mobster, punster, trickster. Such terms continue to be formed , again most frequently in the US: popster, hypester, soulster, scamster.

Master comes from Old English mæg(i)ster, but derives from Latin magister (see also -MEISTER; others that derive from from Latin words with the same ending include minister and barrister (formed from bar in imitation of minister), as do nouns ending in -ASTER (such as poetaster). In words such as boaster, jester, broadcaster, and protester the suffix is -er ... on a stem ending in st.

Joseph Shipley, Dictionary of Word Origins (1945) offers a similar discussion of -ster in his entry for spinster, although he alludes to the form sempster, rather than seamster:

spinster. Obviously, one that spins. But it is the suffix that has the story. Originally, it was feminine only, and was applied in occupations once carried on by women—since taken over by men, and the words lost, though some of them re preserved as names, e.g., Baxter, from bakester, of which the masculine given name was Baker. As men did the work, some of the words had a second feminine suffix added, to indicate women: sempster, whence sempstress; songster, whence songsteress. Applied to men, the suffix usually indicates inferiority (rhymester) or other bad traits (punster, gangster, trickster); this is even more apparent in the LL. form of the suffix (which is originally the combination of Sansk. —as— —tar); poetaster. (Minister, magistrate, are formed with the Sansk. comparative suffixes —yans— —tara; cp. month: May.)

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) confirms the gist of Quinion's (and Shipley's) analysis as it applies to seamster:

seamster n {ME semester, semster, fr. OE sēamestre, seamstress, tailor, fr. sēam, seam (bef. 12c) : a person employed in sewing; esp: TAILOR.}

The Eleventh Collegiate also has an entry for seamstress:

seamstress n (1598): a woman whose occupation is sewing.

The upshot of these discussions is that seamster/sempster was itself originally a gender-specific term, the gender being female, and that when the term began to lose its gender specificity, it was feminized a second time to seamstress when a woman was intended. This left seamster/sempster, by default, as a neutral or vaguely male term—but note that the term did not shift to seamer, on the pattern of brewster (to brewer) or bakester (to baker). Thus, one might argue that etymologically seamster is actually a less gender-specific term than, say, brewer or baker.

However, such an argument fails to acknowledge the effect that the existence of seamstress/sempstress has on the situation. Because a clearly female-specific term exists, the alternative term takes on a masculine implication that it objectively doesn't have. Similarly, although men and women can be actors or poets, the existence of actress and poetess as female-specific terms implies a maleness to the unfeminized term that, objectively, isn't there. But unlike actor/actress and poet/poetess, seamster/seamstress and sempster/sempstress are pairs in which the emphatically female-specific form is far more common than the the neutral or quasi-male-specific form, as this Ngram chart of seamster (blue line) versus seamstress (red line) versus sempster (green line) versus sempstress (yellow line) for the period 1720–2008 makes clear:

In the modern world, it is difficult to see why the gender of the person pursuing an occupation should be relevant to the form of the word use to characterize him or her as a person engaged in that occupation. But given that the female-specific seamstress dominates the field of usage in the seamster/seamstress/sempster/sempstress bundle of terms, seamster seems rather poorly positioned to point the way to a gender-neutral future. In the long term, I think, it is more likely that the entire group of seamster/seamstress/sempster/sempstress terms will gradually drop out of use in favor of gender-neutral use of tailor. Nevertheless, as the Ngram chart above indicates, seamstress has actually become considerably more frequent in the Google Books database over the past 50 years, and it is not impossible that female-specific seamstress and gender-neutral or quasi-male-specific seamster will remain in use indefinitely.

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