Kindly do not start a gender debate based on this question, but I am looking for words that are by definition gender-neutral, but (unlike 'actor' and 'nurse') are used to refer almost exclusively to persons of one gender.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary has been careful to define the following noun examples as 'a person who..., etc' and not as 'a man...' or 'a woman...' which leads me to consider them at least by definition gender-neutral nouns, though two of them appear to formally/formerly indicate gender, and a third (which is notorious) has a gender-specific equivalent:

Definition of watchman: a person who keeps watch : (syn) guard

Definition of midwife [1] a person who assists women in childbirth [2] one that helps to produce or bring forth something (help somebody to successfully complete some project, I assume, example: I am most indebted to my editor John, the midwife who delivered me of this most ambitious novel, etc.)

Definition of pimp: a criminal who is associated with, usually exerts control over, and lives off the earnings of one or more prostitutes (The female equivalent word with a very similar meaning is procuress, though its gender-neutral form is procurer)

Definition of janitor: one who keeps the premises of a building (such as an apartment or office) clean, tends the heating system, and makes minor repairs.

I am taking these only as random examples of gender-neutral nouns, of which I have heard watchman applied almost exclusively to men and midwife applied only to women. SIMILARLY, I have seen the word pimp applied only to men in my wide reading, and women who did something similar were often referred to as 'procuress'. I have myself heard 'janitor' used mainly for men, though I am sure there are many women janitors all over the world.

Other words such as washerman, policeman, seamstress and actress would be obviously gender-specific by structure, and probably applied only to persons of one gender, whereas words like 'actor' and 'nurse' which were previously used exclusively for men and women respectively have expanded to include all genders.

Unfortunately my imagination ends there.

So can you suggest any words in the modern language that are by structure and definition gender-neutral, but used to refer almost exclusively to people of one gender? Please note that these criteria will exclude words ending in -man (such as fisherman, chairman, fireman) because they are structurally gender-specific, even if they may be currently defined in a gender-neutral manner.

Note 2: is there any word that ends in -ess and formerly denoted women alone, which now refers to people of all genders?

Gender-related fact: are you friends at EL& U aware that non-Czech women's surnames are suffixed -ova in order to be made 'grammatically correct' in the Czech language?




AND in Slovak language as well!


(I am sure you know this, linguists and serious language enthusiasts that you are, but it is still something extraordinary, IMHO)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 21 '17 at 3:08

Words that are almost exclusively referring to one gender specifically

For females:

  • Nanny: a child's nurse or caregiver

  • Au pair: a usually young foreign person who cares for children and does domestic work for a family in return for room and board and the opportunity to learn the family's language

  • Teenybopper: A young teenager, typically a girl, who keenly follows the latest fashions in clothes and pop music.

For males:

  • transvestite: A person, typically a man, who derives pleasure from dressing in clothes primarily associated with the opposite sex.

  • priapist: A lascivious person (typically a man)

Words that have flipped gender from their etymological origins

Definitions from Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Harlot (obsolete): A vagabond, beggar, rogue, rascal, villain, low fellow, knave. In later use (16–17th c.), sometimes a man of loose life, a fornicator; also, often, a mere term of opprobrium or insult. Obs.

  • Harlot (modern): An unchaste woman; a prostitute; a strumpet.

  • Bimbo (earliest denotation): A fellow, chap; usu. contemptuous.

  • Bimbo (modern): A woman; esp. a whore.

Words that have warped gender from their etymological origin

  • Girl (earliest denotation): Chiefly in pl. A child of either sex; a young person. Now Irish English (Wexford).

  • Girl (modern): A female child. The counterpart of boy.

  • 1
    Brunette is gendered, as is blonde, as both. The male versions of these words are brunet and blond, though the former is encountered rarely in US English. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brunet – Rache May 19 '17 at 1:49
  • @Rache good point, I guess it was written into the definition in that case. I edited that one out of my answer. – RaceYouAnytime May 19 '17 at 1:57
  • Note that although a priapist is a lascivious man, a man suffering from priapism has probably over-dosed on Viagra. – Cascabel May 19 '17 at 3:06
  • 1
    @Cascabel true. Interestingly, OED appears to claim that they both derive from the Greek god Priapus, not necessarily one from the other – RaceYouAnytime May 19 '17 at 3:11
  • 2
    I have read, and seen with my own eyes, young men who worked as au pairs in Italy ("ragazzo alla pari"), so I'm thinking it's no longer an exclusive female occupation. – Mari-Lou A May 19 '17 at 4:30

Here I shall summarise the very few good examples (of words that are gender neutral in structure and definition, but used almost exclusively or at least most often to refer to persons of one gender, in this day and age) collected so far, based on the contributions of many kind members through their earlier answers and comments (to which please refer for details)



au pair









So few so far!

  • I am inclined to add 'pimp' to this list because its definition is gender-neutral, but I have ever read it used only for men. (Women doing the same thing were often described by the gender-specific term 'procuress', as I mentioned in the original question.) – English Student May 19 '17 at 8:03
  • 'Midwife' and 'nanny' are also added because although their structure is somewhat gendered and their origin is frankly gender-specific, as pertinently pointed out by 1006a, their current definitions are gender-neutral (but they still apply mostly to one gender) – English Student May 19 '17 at 8:28
  • Wikipedia says that firefighting is no longer an all-male profession: women have established their presence in this field en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_firefighting That is why doctor, actor, firefighter, minister, soldier, pilot, judge and priest will no longer make this list! – English Student May 19 '17 at 8:46
  • If you can't think of more possible words, feel free to vote to close! – English Student May 19 '17 at 10:54
  • If you're just going by "does the dictionary definition say the word can now apply to both men and women, BUT most real-life examples are still a single gender" then I think you'll find there are many more of these than you expect. Preschool teacher, particle physicist, mugger, punching bag—just off the top of my head, all of these skew statistically very much toward one sex or another. That makes this topic possibly interesting from a sociological standpoint, but not so much as a language question. Possibly a more interesting, and answerable, question would be something about words which... – 1006a May 19 '17 at 12:16

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