Is Anna Kendrick an actress or an actor? Is it ever okay to refer to her as a comedienne?
These days, gender-specific nouns are often considered inappropriate. Our waiters and waitresses are now servers, our stewards and stewardesses are now flight attendants, and our policemen and policewomen are now just officers. All the major style guides recommend avoiding gender-biased language.
Are there exceptions? Not many.
Comedienne sounds old-fashioned, and casting director Bonnie Gillespie says that these days, people in the industry tend to use standup or comic to avoid the gender issue altogether.
Actress seems less antiquated because the industry still separates men and women for awards, choosing a “best actor” and “best actress,” for example. Still, award shows are the exception and, according to Gillespie, people in the industry typically refer to men and women as simply actors.
“When I get e-mails or calls from talent agents pitching a new client for something I’m casting, they’ll almost always say, ‘I just signed this great new actor. She’s a redhead,’ and so on,”she says. “There is a negative connotation behind the word ‘actress’ almost generationally. People in the industry who are 70 plus will still say ‘actress’ more than those of us who were raised during a different era, as feminism goes, and they mean nothing derogatory in using the word ‘actress,’ whereas someone who is in her 30s may be trying to make a dig.”
Latina, however, don’t seem to carry the same stigma as other gendered words.* Style guides support the Latino–Latina distinction and note that it is sometimes preferred over Hispanic. Since the Spanish language uses gendered nouns, having masculine and feminine forms may seem like less of a call-out ― it follows a normal pattern instead of hinting at bias. Alternatively, David Morrow, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press (publisher of the Chicago Manual of Style) speculates that people may view Latina differently because the word isn’t formed by adding a diminutive suffix such as -ess to a noun that describes a man and therefore isn’t loaded with gender bias in the same way as words such as authoress.
Linguist Neal Whitman also notes that using gendered nouns in English is usually fine when we have male-female pairs such as duke and duchess or abbot and abbess, because “the male-specific term never refers to both males and females,” so the sexes are treated equally.
For example, if an organization describes itself as “a club for dukes,” we know it allows only men, but if a talent agency says it represents actors, we know it represents both men and women. The inclusive nature of actor makes it different from duke, which, in turn, makes actress different from duchess.
In the past, English gendered nouns were more common than they are today. A dive into the Oxford English Dictionary surfaces many feminine nouns that sank under the weight of history. The Wycliffe Bible, an important Middle English document written in the late 1300s, introduced the terms neighboress, singeress, servantess, dwelleress, sinneress, friendess and spousess. Around the same time, Chaucer coined herdess, charmeress, constabless and guideress. Later, Shakespeare’s “Two Noble Kinsmen” included a soldieress and “Measure for Measure” included a fornicatress. Early Modern English speakers could also discuss a farmeress, monarchess, flatteress and saintess.
Although the -ess suffix is the most familiar to us today, it’s not the only suffix we can use to feminize a word. For example, women fighting for the right to vote were sometimes called suffragettes.
The feminine -ster suffix mainly survives in the word spinster (which still sounds fusty enough to evoke Jane Austen or “Downton Abbey”), but during the same era that gave us those other wonderful words ending in -ess, people could also talk about a brewester (female brewer), a knitster and a seamster (which lost its linguistic battle with seamstress).
In addition to editrixes, English also once had admistratrixes, executrixes, mediatrixes (female mediators) and inheritrixes. Alas, although editrix is more delightful to say, a Google Ngram search shows that editress has always been more popular — but unless you’re joking, stick with editor.
The list goes on, but citations for these terms mostly disappear by the late 1800s. A 1903 citation for poetess, for example, is simply someone writing that the word is outmoded, and when writers today use words such as heroess, the sentences sound ironic or comical.
The terms that survived to more modern times, such as comedienne, stewardess and sculptress, began to encounter resistance in the 1970s when social change caused writers, editors, and public figures to rethink the role of gendered language.
In an article in the journal American Speech, Charles F. Meyer, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, noted that in 2000, when he taught students about language changing to de-emphasize nouns that flag a person as female, instead of dealing with angry objections as he had in decades past, he is now greeted with yawns and “so whats.”
Just as nobody misses neighboress, today’s younger people don’t seem to miss waitress or stewardess either.
* Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified Latina as a noun.