7

What is the unisex form of a word like fisherman? Do you have to use fisherman and fisherwoman separately, or is fisherperson acceptable? I couldn’t find a dictionary with the word …

In general, what do you do when a word does not have a unisex form?

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    Rather than unisex, you'll have better luck in your search if you use gender-neutral. – coleopterist Jul 27 '12 at 16:28
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    I prefer "fisherbeing" to avoid excluding non-humans. – Jay Jul 27 '12 at 17:37
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    What's wrong with angler? – Chris Nov 20 '12 at 2:04
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    The gender-sensitive/ unisex concept to remember at all times is that man refers to human being, not male, in the context -- 'The Evolution of Man' does not exclude the feminine half of the species. – Kris Nov 20 '12 at 5:38
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    @Kris Except that it does, subliminally. – Mynamite Apr 15 '13 at 20:48
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There really is no general rule. Language evolves, and the evolution is primarily influenced by the people using the word, and different communities have different ways of thinking, so the “unisex” solutions turn out to be different for different words.

There is a critical distinction to be drawn here between at least three kinds of gender-neutral language.

  • One is grammatical neutrality: this is easy in English but hard in many languages. For example, moon has no grammatical gender in English, but is feminine in French (la lune) and masculine in German (der Mond). Nevertheless, a few words in English sometimes take particular gender pronouns: earth, moon, and nature, for example, certain moral qualities (such as wisdom and justice), and certain forms of transportation (such as ships and automobiles), are sometimes feminine and take the pronoun she. You might describe this as personification. Another term for it, according to the Wikipedia article “Gender in English”, is covert gender.

  • A second kind is etymological neutrality: language that contains no possible ambiguity, because it avoids root words that could be mistaken to mean only people who identify as a particular gender. In English, we rely more and more on such terms: attendant, parenthood, letter carrier, not stewardess, motherhood, fatherhood, postman.

  • A third kind is connotative neutrality: language having grammatical or etymological roots in a gender, but nevertheless used and understood to connote nothing about gender: manslaughter, freshman class, maiden voyage, master key, fraternal twins, lumberjack, matriculate.

In the fishing industry, the gender-neutral term actually used most is fisherman, plural fishermen. The term is neutral in the first and third sense, but not the second. It is grammatically neutral, neutral in connotation, but not neutral in etymology, much like freshman and lumberjack.

There was a campaign in Canada to adopt the word fisher, but the women in the profession largely refused to have anything to do with it:

[F]ederal efforts to replace fisherman with fisher in government documents, coupled with a high-profile Supreme Court decision on native fishing rights, caused a riptide of dissent over what to call people who fish. To complicate matters, many women in the industry didn’t want their job title changed and insisted on being called fishermen.¹

It is certainly possible that the preference for fisherman as the gender-neutral term will diminish as time passes. Over the past thirty years, the use of many such words has become less common. As of this writing, fisher has not yet caught on in occupational or popular usage. Some academics and governmental agencies now use the term fisher, and this may eventually influence the public. See for example the conclusion of the recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation article, “Is ‘fishermen’ a sexist and exclusionary term?” But only time will tell whether fisher really will catch on.

  • 8
    FWIW, I heard a female WNBA coach admonishing her female players to "Make sure you guard your man. We aren't playing zone defense here." – Robusto Jul 27 '12 at 16:31
  • Nice answer. Definitely gives me something interesting to think about :) – asymptotically Jul 27 '12 at 16:31
  • There's a WP page that provides a nice overview of this ... situation. – coleopterist Jul 27 '12 at 16:35
  • @coleopterist Yes, I knew of chairperson, which is why this question came to mind :) – asymptotically Jul 27 '12 at 16:38
  • @asymptotically you mean the chairman? – Ryan Oct 30 '14 at 20:00
6

Man has always been used in a gender-neutral way per Merriam-Webster. Until the arguably over-sensitive demands of feminism since the 1960s, words like fisherman or chairman were readily accepted as non-specific as to gender. As a result, the natural plural was the usual men. Continued use is therefore a matter of bravery!

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    Indeed so! The OED’s very first sense of man is “A human being (irrespective of sex or age); = L. homo. In OE. the prevailing sense.” Just so, the nearest relative to genus Pan, the chimpanzees and bonobos, is genus Homo, best translated as just plain man, not as men and women. It’s like how an ombudsman can be a woman, or how in German “Mann sagt” doesn’t exclude women. If a husbandman is a farmer who tills the soil, they don’t turn into a *husbandwoman just because they’re female. (Don’t misstep to the wrong etymon on homosexual, though: it’s not all about men. :) – tchrist Jul 27 '12 at 18:02
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    It is true, but misleading, to say that "man" has always been used in a gender-neutral way. "Man" has been used in both a gender-neutral way and a gender-specific way since the late 13C when "wer" fell out of use. – MetaEd Jul 27 '12 at 19:08
  • @MetaEd I am happy to accept the correction. – Tony Balmforth Jul 27 '12 at 19:31
  • I heard someone say it this way once: "Remember, there are two kinds of man: there's male man, and female man." – J.R. Jul 28 '12 at 5:00
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    Editorialize much? Previous to those "over-sensitive demands of feminism" this kind of language squirreliness allowed our very language to reinforce a sexist status quo. Those demands of feminism have challenged language norms and moved us forward as a culture toward less exclusionary language. – Wes Modes Dec 18 '17 at 23:42
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I have worked in the high seas commercial fishing industry my entire life. All the women I have met who fish for a living will admonish and correct you for calling them "fisherwoman". We work hard for our title and that is Fisherman.

  • Genuinely curious question: Are you a fishermen yourself and do you think there is any possibility of internalized sexism in women preferring the term fisherman? Put another way, do you think the high demands of the occupation and its rep of being an exclusive fraternity means that, once accepted, women prefer to display their badge of entry into this fraternity? – Wes Modes Dec 18 '17 at 23:47
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I think the use of the word "Angler" would be appropriate.

an•gler (ˈæŋ glər)

n. 1. a person who fishes with a hook and line

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    Angling is much more specific than fishing; I daresay most people who fish for a living do not do so by angling. – Hellion Apr 15 '13 at 21:11
0

I don't think there’s a single definitive solution.

Most commonly, the suffix -men is used for the plural. The somewhat ungainly phrase “[term]men and women” (e.g., “fishermen and women”) can be used to make the inclusivity explicit.

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