Thought I would try a question with visual aid.*

The image below shows Claire Danes, "Actor", in a kiosk poster for the Met. The variation in usage between actor and actress for female thespians is ably handled here: Female Actor or Actress

Claire Danes, female Actor

My question is: more generally, what is the term for nouns that have gender-specific forms (master / mistress, emperor / empress, bachelor / bachelorette, hero / heroine) and those that don't (swimmer, dancer, announcer, etc.)?

[Separately, it would be interesting to see any cross-language / cross-region statistics on prevalence or frequency of gender-variant noun forms.]

* Victor Mair on Language Log has been illustrating contemporary Chinese usage brilliantly with photos from real life ( http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?author=13 ), so I thought I would try it out here on English Usage. If you like experiments, let me know how you like this one...

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    Related: Epicene & english.stackexchange.com/questions/75666/… Sep 20, 2012 at 6:04
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    I do not know if you have covered this point, but: talking of gender specific words, actor is gender-neutral per se, only actress is gender-specific, as are master, waiter, host ... (else you would not be adding on something to make them feminine). In this sense, Claire Danes is an actor in any case, and only incidentally, a woman. You may chose to specify the gender if you wish.
    – Kris
    Sep 20, 2012 at 7:48

1 Answer 1


As a personal opinion, I'll suggest that there is no tidy single word term for gender specific words. In fact "gender-specific" or non-gender-specific or similar are probably as good as you can get.

No noun is immune to gender differentiation, or removal of gender differentiation. If somebody takes a term that is usually asexual and produces two new gender based variants that are recognisable, it will probably not survive, but there is no reason why an especially apposite creation may not become part of the language. Some words may have a general and eg female version but no distinctly male equivalent. eg the (contrived for the purposes of this illustration) term "pilotess" would be immediately understandable. I cannot think of a distinct male equivalent. [For female-er-ising, addition of "-ess" works in many cases ! :-) ].

Such choices either way, as have occurred in 'recent times', are liable to have been driven by the desire on the one hand to use gender inclusive language, and on the other hand to use terminology which makes a point about discrimination or differentiation when it is used.

The term dancer is indeed gender inclusive, but "ballerina" exists as a term which overwhelmingly suggests a female protagonist. The term "male ballerina" gives 14,000 Google hits - but most seem to be asking what the correct term is (Some suggest "Cavalier"). Some sites such as this one are so bold as to use the term directly , but still manage to revert to the occasional "male ballet dancers" indicating that the usage is unusual.
The suffix " ...ina" tends to suggest either 'small' or 'female' but this is not necessarily so in all cases.

For added fun, consider the gender inclusive / male only / female only versions of: Waiter, Host, Bellboy, Pointsman (cars), Point-man (guns), Aviator, Dominatrix, Seamstress, Druid, Governor, Best man, Minx, Cougar, Priest, Nun.
Many need extra discussion to explain variants. eg "Dominator" may be the proper male version of Dominatrix but loses a certain something. Priest may become priestess, but not always. Seamstress seems to have no equal. etc

  • We also have danseur and danseuse which are used to denote male and female dancers respectively. Sep 20, 2012 at 6:43
  • Fantastic examples. Ballerina, minx, and seamstress are particularly interesting. Sep 20, 2012 at 7:06
  • I love Trow's Maxwell's 'Woman Policeman'. Sep 20, 2012 at 11:21
  • Tailor (obviously a different root) is often viewed as the male corollary to seamstress. What about manx as a boy minx?
    – bib
    Sep 20, 2012 at 12:42
  • @bib if I saw "manx" I'd probably be thinking in terms of a connection to the Isle of Man. Sep 20, 2012 at 15:50

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