Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Linguistics Corner

Today in Linguistics Corner, let's look at word sex.

Well, word gender actually. What consenting words do in the privacy of their own homes is their own business.

Today, I decided to treat myself to a massage after work. I called up my local day spa and made an appointment. "That's with Kevin. Is it okay to have a male masseuse?" No, actually, it isn't. English (and French) rebel at the thought. A male who gives massages is a masseur; by definition a masseuse is female.

Got me thinking. Not just about the fact that a receptionist at a day spa (of all people) committed this particular faux pas -- but also whether there are other feminine words that, through use or misuse, have come to include the masculine gender.

We know it works the other way. Many female performers prefer to be called "actors" rather than "actresses" -- the word which once meant only a male who makes his living on the stage now includes the female of the species.

But, other than this perversion of masseuse (which I'll admit to having heard in many other places), I can't think of another set of words divided by gender in which people now use the female to refer to the male as well.

I've never met a male executrix, a male widow, a male waitress, a male sculptress, a male usherette, or a male stewardess. (I give partial credit to "nurse" -- which never actually had a male variant, but there was a time when one said "male nurse" to distinguish, and now a "nurse" is a nurse of any gender.)

Is there any other word that used to denote solely females, that is now sometimes used as the gender-neutral version?


franj1fla said...

Are you a Rantress?

nzforme said...

I prefer Rantette. (Sounds sorta like a back-up singer for Dennis Miller.)