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After reading an article in which it was stated that Che Guevara became a confidante of Fidel Castro, I am now very confused about the proper usage of the words confidante and confidant.

Every definition I can find of "confidante" says that it is mainly used for a female friend with whom you share personal information. This obviously doesn't work in the case of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In addition, I have read or heard this word used many times to refer generally to a friend with whom you disclose personal information - male or female. Actually, I always associated this word with a male friend...

The dictionaries say that "confidant" is the term used for a male friend in this regards, but I rarely even see it used.

So my question is, has the usage of "confidante" become more gender-neutral in recent history or am I just ignorant? Is it appropriate to use "confidante" to refer to a male friend, or should I only use "confidant"?

  • It's pronounced the same regardless of whether the final "e" is present in the orthographic form (which I personally probably wouldn't bother with). Having said that, whereas I've no problem with she was a confidant, I must say that he was a confidante looks a bit silly to me. Google Books backs me up on that one, with 3,200 hits for the former (effectively ignoring gender), but just 9 hits for the latter (misassigned gender). – FumbleFingers Nov 26 '16 at 14:37
  • @FumbleFingers My own sense is that it is more commonly used (in Britain at least) with the e, even where it refers to a male. That seems to be borne out by the OED: Confidante. Etymology: Compare confidant n. It may be that this was first formed to represent the sound of the French confidente, and that the masculine confidant was formed from it. The feminine is the more common in use. – WS2 Nov 26 '16 at 15:14
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    @WS2: According to this NGram, was a confidant of has always been far more common than confidante in both AmE and BrE corpuses. In fact, given the "feminised" version barely existed at all until about a century ago, I think it's really just an over-enthusiastic "orthographic hypercorrection". – FumbleFingers Nov 26 '16 at 15:42
  • @FumbleFingers According to the OED, the original, in English, was the feminised form, and the masculine was simply back-formed from it. – WS2 Nov 26 '16 at 16:03
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    @WS2: That's as may be, but perhaps this NGram will make my point more clearly. Statistically speaking, apart from a brief appearance around 1805, the explicitly feminine version was virtually unknown until almost a century later. Historically, there was obviously an element of "back-formation", but that's hardly relevant today. – FumbleFingers Nov 26 '16 at 16:45
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Some believe confidant/confidante should be gender-specific in English à la fiancé/fiancée. Others believe there is no need (especially as it is not a pure import from French) or are blissfully unaware of its gender-specific connotations.

Here is some advice (admittedly in the Law niche) from A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage by Bryan A. Garner:

...Today the forms confidant and confidante predominate in both AmE and BrE, though confidante is falling into disuse because of what is increasingly thought to be a needless distinction between males and females. Despite the poor etymology, I confidently recommend using confidant for both sexes, as it is predominantly used in American caselaw...

Also here is view from grammarist.com which broadly agrees that confidant is preferred.

Confidant, which refers to one to whom secrets or private thoughts are disclosed, refers to both males and females. Confidante sometimes appears in reference to females, but the male–female distinction is unnecessary here. One might argue the distinction is justified because it preserves the French forms, but in fact, confidant is not even a French word. It was invented by English writers in the 18th century. The French equivalent is confident (which is indeed inflected confidente for females).

So Che Guevara became a confidant of Fidel Castro seems to be preferred by both these sources.

EDIT Looking at N-Grams, it seems the gender specific users are in the majority. I see this order of popularity in BrE ...

  • female confidante
  • male confidant
  • female confidant
  • male confidante

whereas in AmE female confidant overtakes male confidant. Perhaps both my quoted references are AmE focused!

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    I don't suppose we can get a similar ruling on "incognito" and "incognita." – Airymouse Nov 26 '16 at 15:55
  • @Airymouse Maybe that one deserves its own question ? – k1eran Nov 26 '16 at 16:33
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    Thank you for the great references! I think I'll take your advice and stick to "confidant" since there doesn't seem to be as much linguistic support for "confidante" anyway... – Tagger Nov 26 '16 at 19:14
  • "perhaps because of the French nasal pronunciation" - and perhaps also because "confident" is an English adjective (from the noun "confidence") with a rather different meaning. – alephzero Nov 26 '16 at 22:39
  • @Airymouse english.stackexchange.com/q/361426/131620 – k1eran Dec 2 '16 at 1:55

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