Often in science fiction when someone refers to a male or female member of some other species, they use terms like "the klingon female". This also happens between members of that species, so if a Klingon was to refer to a female of their own species, they would refer to her as a "klingon female". For me as a native German speaker, this sounds rather weird as in German this kind of wording would only be used when referring to animals (e.g. female dog) and it sounds rather derogatory. When referring to humans, in German you would always use the equivalent words for "woman" or "man". I have also (rarely) seen that usage in English language non-science fiction movies used on humans.

So my question is, in English is the use of "female" or "male" to describe a person of either the same or an equal species derogatory or not? Are there any connotations to that that I don't get? Is this usage fine among humans (in the real world)?

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    Use of "the female" for "the woman" predates science fiction. See James Fenimore Cooper, The Heidenmauer : "The door opened, and the female stood confronted to the person of the anchorite. The cloak and hood both fell from the female's head, as by an involuntary weakness of her hand—and each stood gazing long, wistfully, and perhaps in doubt, at the other. The female, more prepared for the interview, was the first to speak."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 9:25
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    @SvenYargs For another example there are versions of the early 19th C folk song Bonny Bunch of Roses-O which begin "By the dangers (or margin) of the ocean / one morning ( or pleasant evening) in the month of June / The sweet feathered warbling songsters their charming notes so sweet did tune / 'Twas there I spied a female seemingly in grief and woe, Conversing with young Buonaparte concerning the bonny bunch of Roses O!". As the song progresses the female turns out to the Empress Josephine.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 11:47
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    @SvenYargs depending of course on your definition, SF predates Fenimore Cooper by some time. Certainly Frankenstein came before The Heidenmauer, and Frankenstein's creation says "You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede." [emph. mine]
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 13:14
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    "You will be required to select from the Matrix 23 individuals - 16 female, 7 male - to rebuild Zion." - we can debate all day about how that's derogatory, but none of those words are.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:00
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    This of course assumes that an alien species even has two genders in the same way that humans and other Earthling animals do. Assuming they evolved entirely independently from humans, there's no guarantee that these aliens wouldn't be entirely genderless, or hermaphroditic/parthenogenetic (possessing traits of both or capable of self-impregnation), or have more than two genders, or even be able to switch genders at will, which some real creatures on Earth already can do. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:14

3 Answers 3


Police regularly use male and female as nouns or adjectives, a convention often imitated by news outlets:

AKRON, Ohio — Police say two males robbed another male of marijuana and then shot the victim in the ankle when he chased after them. — Cleveland.com, 16 Feb. 2019.

Around 9:30 a.m. Monday, a male entered the TD Bank in Franklin and handed a teller a handwritten note instructing her to give him an undisclosed amount of cash, Mattessich said. … The suspect was described as a black male with a medium build and facial hair wearing a grey checkered jacket. — New Jersey Herald, 17 Jan. 2019.

Police say a lone male came in to the store with a weapon. No physical injuries were reported, police said. — London Free Press (UK), 14 Jan. 2019.

The female cyclist was treated by emergency services but died at the scene. — TheAge.com (Melbourne), 14 Aug. 2018.

On Tuesday, March 13, 2018, a female dressed in scrubs entered a seniors' residence in the West end of Ottawa, and proceeded into tenants' rooms and stole various items — Ottawa Police

Medical literature essentially follows the same convention:

A 20-year-old Caucasian female presented with vitiligo on the knees, with the right knee involved more than the left knee.

54-year-old male presented with difficulty in breathing and was diagnosed with asthma. — Research Gate

What the language of police and physicians have in common is that they use male and female purely as physical descriptives. While this usage may seem impersonal and antiseptic, it is not insulting or demeaning.

This is not to say that the two words cannot be used in such a way:

One of the most disturbing things you can discover, is that some female who you don’t even know has been flirting with your man. The truth is that you should not blame the man, as it may not be his fault. — “Women Who Flirt With Unavailable Men,” Totally Her Media (UK)

The next defining influence on my life was feminism. Its first glad morning, in the mid- to late Sixties, was thrilling. Here were women (not girls) who were no longer content to attach themselves like limpets to some male; who wanted to forge their own lives and earn their own mortgages; who thought — no, dammit, knew — they were as good as men. — Angela Lambert, “Beware the march of liberal thought police,” The Independent, 5 July 1993.

In social contexts, reducing a man or woman to either gender or the purely physical can be demeaning, but not always so:

The New Man was once a radical way to describe a male who wholeheartedly accepted equality in domestic life. — “Whatever happened to the term New Man?” BBC News, 30 Jan. 2014.

Curiously enough, while addressing a male as “man,” in either slang or more formal English, is neutral without further context, addressing a woman simply as “woman” is always patronizing and insulting:

“Now see here, woman,”he said. “I don't know who you are, but I assure you that I have nothing but this boy’s best interests in mind.” — Greg Funaro, Alistair Grim's Odditorium, 2015.


Klingons have the distinction of being the only Star Trek humanoids adequately represented in a Google N-Gram, but even here, Klingon man does not appear, which means the term returns less than 40 hits. Klingon woman, however, is by far the most represented:

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This suggests that for writers in the Star Trek universe, Klingons are by default male; females have to be specified:

This was, after all, a young Klingon woman. He supposed Kalrind would be considered attractive by a Klingon. In fact, Kirk could even see her attractiveness, if he made the effort to see her face as a Klingon would. — David Dvorkin, Timetrap, 1988, 43.

Though the Romulans have a fairly egalitarian — though fascist — culture, Romulan woman is the only term that shows up in an NGram, suggesting the same male default.

Klingon female appears in the purely descriptive sense, as half of a male-female behavioral pair, or simply as a synonym:

When a Klingon female wishes to divorce her mate, she simply declares “N 'Gos tlhogh cha! ” Translation: “Our marriage is done!” Oh, and then she belts him ... — Michael Jan Friedman, Robert Greenberger, Q's Guide to the Continuum, 1988, 38.

A Klingon female would address someone as maqoch only if she intended to insult him or her. A Klingon male with any honor at all would never address a female as maqoch. The word maqoch itself may derive from may' qoch (literally, “battle partner”), so perhaps it originally meant something like “war buddy.” — Mark Okrand, Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, 2011.

Kira frowned and turned back toward the older Klingon female. — Day of Honor (anthology), 1999, 298.

The first two examples are drawn from non-narrative works where the use of male and female give the passages the air of cultural anthropology, as if the Klingons were some jungle tribe “discovered” in the 19th c. While this usage, then and now, may betray cultural bias, it is free of affect, which, of course, makes it all the more insidious when applied to real people rather than inhabitants of a fictive sci-fi universe.

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    "while addressing a male as “man,” in either slang or more formal English, is neutral without further context, addressing a woman simply as “woman” is always patronizing and insulting:" True, but "Boy" is much more universally derogative than 'Girl'
    – JeffUK
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:51
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    Love the answer. Question from pure curiosity: would it be possible to search episode scripts or official media transcripts to gauge how often "Klingon woman," "Klingon female," and similar appellations are used in the shows and films? Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 16:14
  • The AP Style Guide says not to use "male" and "female" unless it is strictly necessary or in quotes. It's definitely kinda weird, but not universally demeaning (as you said). i can quote from my copy when i get home. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 17:03
  • @TaliesinMerlin: Screenplays and filmscripts are rarely published, much less posted online.
    – KarlG
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 18:59
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    This one takes the biscuit: "Klingons have the distinction of being the only Star Trek humanoids adequately represented in a Google N-Gram." Your answers are always a joy to read... and great answers to boot!
    – tmgr
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 1:12

Man and woman refers only to members of the species Homo Sapiens. It is not a generic gender term that can apply to other species.

Further - because the Klingon world is made up, and we don’t know their language, then the writer is not able to say, for example ‘Vardikon’ for ‘Klingon male’ and ‘Komptree’ for ‘Klingon Female’ - as we don’t know those Klingon words - for ‘woman and man - in Klingon’.

And, if the author decides to teach us those words, there’s quite a lot s/he has to write. Which then doesn’t work if a reader dips into a later section of the book - having missed the explanation.

So that’s why the author is probably using ‘Klingon female’ and ‘the male’ etc.

It’s not derogatory in English.

It can be used to artistically emphasise aspects of gender - say, to contrast - for example ‘the female stood before him, battered, frail, bloodied, as the giant raised his hand...’ Contrasting her as ‘weaker’ in comparison to ‘the giant’ by emphasising her gender. Also potentially making a broader statement about ‘womankind’ at the same time.

The thing is that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ refer to ‘humans’, not to Klingons. Only humans can be ‘woman and man’. Man-man and womb-man - woman.

If you used ‘female’ in a more mundane situation like ‘the female shop assistant came up to me and she said...’ then that’s ok and not derogatory. It might be used to differentiate her from, say, ‘the male shop assistant’.

Man - ‘ a member of the species Homo Sapiens...’


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    This is simply not correct. Even outside of sci-fi entirely, man and woman can refer to other hominids. E.g. theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/17/…
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 13:53
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    We do know the Klingon language despite it also being "made up". The words for man and woman in the Klingon language are loD and be' respectively.
    – Ty Hayes
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:51
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    Dictionary.com has "1: an adult male person, as distinguished from a boy or a woman. " and only the second and 3rd meaning refer to human. Also "person: ... 5: a self-conscious or rational being. " Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:51
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    If I may furthermore point out that the 'etymology' of woman (womb + man) given here is simply wrong. It is a combination of 'wif' (cf. for example to "wife" in English or "Weib" in German) and man. etymonline.com/word/woman Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 14:53
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    Worth pointing out that klingons in the stories often referred to their own males and females as "men and women". Most of the Male/Female stuff was cross-species. Ferengi particularly like to discuss "Hooman Females". I always took it as slightly derogatory. That other sentient species were essentially being regarded as a kind of animal. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 15:24

There's a specific reason this formation is used in Science Fiction --it's meant to emphasize the alien nature of the speaker, and the fact that the speaker and human beings are of different species. It's a deliberately distancing and dehumanizing/depersonalizing locution, an oft-used writer's shorthand to denote an alien perspective.

Given that, you wouldn't use it in ordinary conversation. It would typically be insulting in English, just as it is in German.

With that said, there are exceptions. "Females" is sometimes used as a playful equivalent to "women" in contemporary black American slang, but usually only if the speaker is male. Also, as @KarlG indicated, it can be used in institutional or scientific descriptions (perhaps because of the depersonalizing effect, and perhaps to avoid the numerous additional connotations of "man" and "woman").

  • It's sad that we see distance/alienness as insulting/derogatory. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:22
  • @Chris Sunami supports Monica When there's a specific reason that formation is used in sci-fi, is that always true, sometimes true or what? If you're truly suggesting there is a single, mandated reason then by all means feel free to justify that but at the same time, feel free to drop it for lack of support. My suggestion is there is no specific - certainly no single - reason but rather, everything depends on what a particular author meant in a particular story. Does that not work for you? Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 20:29

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