The twilight of -ess

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To follow up on Mark's post, below, on the bottomless fatuity of Robert Fisk: we gave a bunch of these items in –ess to the members of the American Heritage Usage Panel some years ago; Kristen Hanson and I reported some of the results in an LSA paper in 1988. What we found is that even then, the generally conservative and venerable writers and editors on the panel were bailing out on the suffix, retaining it only where it had a certain historical signficance. Here are the relevant paragraphs of the paper:

In one set of items, we asked the panelists to judge the acceptability of sentences containing a variety of words with the suffix –ess, including ambassadress, sculptress, waitress, stewardess, hostess, actress and seductress. Some of the results are shown in examples (23)-(30):

23. When the ambassadress arrives, please show her directly to my office. women: 13% men: 28% total: 23%

24. Georgia O'Keefe is not as well-known as a sculptress as she is as a painter. women: 15% men: 42% total: 34%

25. Mary Ann is such a charming hostess that her parties always go off smoothly. women: 74% men: 92% total: 86%

26. Mata Hari used her ability as a seductress to spy for the Germans. women: 69% men: 70% total: 69%

27. His only hope now is to marry an heiress. women: 92% men: 95% total: 94%

28. Mr. Bhutto's daughter and political heiress, Benazir Bhutto, returned to Pakistan in April. women: 28% men: 37% total: 34%

29. There are not very many good parts available for older actresses. women: 92% men: 98% total: 96%

30. He coaches British actors and actresses in the pronunciation of American English. women: 73% men: 83% total: 80%

It is notable that the large majority of the panelists have reservations about continuing to use at least some of these words in the traditional way. Only 23 percent of the panel and 28 percent of the men continue to accept the suffix in all words, judging by the number who allowed it in the least acceptable item, ambassadress. (This result is particularly striking when you consider that the average age of men on the panel is probably well over 60.) Most panelists have apparently taken into account the objections by some feminists that the suffix implies invidiously that there is a difference in social and occupational roles according as they are performed by a man or by a woman.

At the same time, we can infer that an even smaller proportion of panelists have categorically dropped from their lexicons all words containing the suffix: more than 90% accept the use of actress in (29) and heiress in (30). Instead, panelists have evaluated the relevance of this claim on a word-by-word basis. For occupational terms, the panel appears generally to have accepted the feminists' argument, as witness the low acceptability of sculptress and ambassadress, but they have made an exception for actress, presumably because acting is an occupation in which the parts one can play depend on one's sex. With terms denoting social roles, by contrast, the panel appears to have felt that the distinction was legitimate: hence 86 percent of the panel accepted the suffix in hostess, and 69 percent accepted it in seductress.

Note moreover that the panel made significant distinctions of acceptability among different uses of the same word. In (27) we see that 95 percent of the panel accepted heiress in a social context, while only 34 percent accepted it in a political context in (28). In (29) and (30) we see that the acceptability of actress tends to vary according as sex is relevant to the point at issue.

One other item that we didn't report in the paper involved heroine: not suprisingly, many more people were willing to use this of Elizabeth Bennet ("the heroine of Pride and Prejudice") than of Rosa Parks ("a heroine of the civil rights movement"). I am confident that if the questions were given to the current panel, an even larger proportion of the panelists would reject –ess in most contexts. Actually, my guess is that you'd want to ask about a different set of items.

PS. I wrote up a longer paper dealt in greater depth with the implications of these and other observations about the panel's opinions. It appeared in 1990 in The State of the Language, ed. by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels, and turns out to be online at Google Books.


  1. Ben G said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

    Question #29 introduces bias. Unlike all of the other statements, "There are not very many good parts available for older actresses" will actually become untrue if its -"ess" word is replaced with a gender-neutral substitute. I submit that this may have led to artificially increased rates of acceptability for the use of "actress."

  2. James D said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    The general tendency in that study and elsewhere seems to be a marked increase in preference for "-ess" when the gender of the individual is relevant to the context (and certain contexts, such as marriage and seduction, seem to carry an arguably unnecessary expectation of genderedness). Of course a too rigid insistence on non-gendered forms regardless of context can provide a certain amount of hilarity, as this correction from the Guardian on January 15th, 2007, shows all too well:

    'A rigid application of the Guardian style guide caused us to say of Carlo Ponti in his obituary, page 34, January 11, that in his early career he was "already a man with a good eye for pretty actors …" This was one of those occasions when the word "actresses" might have been used.'

  3. exackerly said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    The SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards use the categories Male Actor and Female Actor. It sounds distinctly odd to my ears.

    Presumably they're trying to be gender-neutral, but if so, why put men and women in separate categories in the first place?

  4. Nadia said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    Could the reaction to words like "ambassadress" and "sculptress" have to do with their relative novelty or rarity? Women have occupied the roles of actress, seductress and heiress far longer – at least in the minds of those who have been around for 30 or more years – than they have been able to become ambassadors and sculptors (or at least recognized for their work). Maybe the panelists' reactions had more to do with what sounded 'right' than with the feminist argument against the -ess suffix. Just a thought.

    GN: On reflection, this wasn't the best sentence to use with ambassadress, which historically was commonly used for the wife of an ambassador and which has been used in modern times for a woman ambassador. In fact you find such pairs as the following, in reference to Clare Booth Luce, who was ambassador to Italy in the 1950's:

    Ordinarily the Ambassadress carries a lot of the social load, but Clare was her own Ambassadress (Ambassador Extraordinary Clare Booth Luce, by Alden Hatch, 1956)

    MacLeish would have approved his efforts to liven such an ever-lengthening book as the Congressional Record with a poem about the present Ambassadress to Italy, Clare Booth Luce. (Three Presidents and Their Books, 1955).

    Unfortunately the sentence in the question didn't give any indication of which sense of the word was intended.

  5. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    @Ben G: Certainly the examples show that context and semantics affect these acceptability judgments, but I don't see how any of the rates can be said to be "artificially" high or low. And I suspect that few speakers would accept, say, "The gallery owner is a male chauvinist who refuses to show the work of any paintresses, let alone photographesses."

  6. bloix said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    "His only hope now is to marry an heiress" is obvious sarcasm, an intentional invocation of the time when girls whose fathers had become rich in trade were the salvation of bankrupt English aristocrats. The panel would surely have approved the usage as a historical reference.

  7. Henning Makholm said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur: That might be because it is only -or (not -er) that can be converted to -ress for a femine referent in the first place?

  8. Henning Makholm said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Hm, except "waiter". Perhaps I'm just wrong here?

  9. J. Goard said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    And "prince", "baron", "host", etc. where the masculine form has no affix.

  10. Qov said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:07 am

    My father once told me a story that he thought was hilarious, about a server in a restaurant bringing out the manager, "but it wasn't a manager at all. She was a manageress!" The forms were so marked to him that the (to me gender-neutral) form manager didn't apply to a woman at all. He was born in 1926 and emigrated to Canada from England in the early 1950s. He seemed to feel that most neutral terms were male, and would say "lady bus driver" and the like, to differentiate if the language lacked a term.

    I would be interested in seeing the flip side of your study: how many people rejected the non-ess forms as applying to women. Would anyone today blink at a woman being called a sculptor or an ambassador? I would reject 'host' for a woman, and am borderline on 'actor.'

    I also found myself choosing "server" in the above anecdote, even though I don't object to waitress, because it seemed silly to include the gender of the server when it was irrelevant.

  11. mollymooly said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:16 am

    In Cork the Lord Mayor's wife is the Lady Mayoress. When Jane Dowdall became the first female mayor in 1959, she was "Lord Mayor", not "Lady Mayor", still less "Lady Mayoress".

    Some languages maintain a lexical distinction between a queen regnant and a queen consort. So does English, obviously, but not by default.

  12. Julie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:19 am

    Where gender is not relevant, female-gendered forms are generally lower-status than their neutral equivalents. Of those, "ess" suffixes are less derogatory than "Lady X" formations. Note that "waitress" implies a coffee shop, while "waiter" implies a nice restaurant. "Lady driver" is an insult, plain and simple.

    On the other hand, one might think the gender of a dominatrix to be quite relevant, and I don't see that word becoming neuter anytime soon. And if you're looking to hire an actor, you probably know what gender you're looking for.

    The "wife of" meaning is a problem for the "ess" suffix. At one time, I guess it made some sense…the proprietor and the proprietress made a working team, with a division of labor along conventional lines. That is, it's a separate job title, with its own specific duties. "Hostess" makes the same assumption. The host, after all, does not fuss over the hors d'oeuvres, does he? (Or so runs the stereotype.)

    I vote with the majority in all the examples above. But if you were really going to say "lady writer," uh….

  13. Nicholas FitzGerald said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:56 am

    It seems to me that one problem of this study is that by asking specifically about the acceptability of the "-ess" suffix, the subjects are made aware of the purpose of the study, and will therefore be scrutinizing their thought-process more than usual, so you're not really getting a measure of the natural reaction to the words. I imagine many more people would judge these words "acceptable" if they weren't explicitly focusing on the social implications of this.

    A better design might be to ask whether the sentence as a whole contains a grammar or spelling error, and mix these "-ess" sentences in with ones which do not contain an "-ess" word, but may contain some other error. I imagine "acceptance" rates would go up a lot in that case.

  14. Edward Vitasek said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:10 am

    24. has "sculptress" and "painter" (rather than paintress). Mightn't that put off panelists who value consistency?

  15. Colin Reid said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:20 am

    I don't know how relevant this is, but some languages have moved in exactly the opposite direction in the name of respect for women. In both directions though, it seems to be a matter of regularisation. Most words for occupation-holders in English are now gender-neutral, so adding a suffix for gender stands out. By contrast, in German for instance, most such words allow a suffix '-in' for a woman, and for most of these words the suffix is obligatory. That means in the few cases where it's not obligatory (or until recently was considered incorrect) to use the suffix, it can still be seen as sexist to use an unmarked form to refer to a woman. Using the unmarked form for a person of unknown gender or in the plural for a mixed group is also problematic for the same reason, but gender-neutral alternatives that don't look awkward still haven't emerged.

    It seems the 'gendered forms are sexist' arguments (English) and the 'gender-neutral forms are sexist' arguments (German) are both contingent on current usage and don't represent any general principle. The key point is rather that deviations from the usual rule appear to place emphasis, and people want to avoid such an emphasis unless they have something to emphasise. (In English, the situations where '-ess' is still preferred are those where it makes sense to emphasise gender: eg in "There are not very many good parts available for older actresses", the implication is that there are plenty of good parts available for older male actors.)

  16. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 5:05 am

    @Colin Reid: I think you're exactly right: what is (regarded as) offensive is non-contextually-relevant markedness, but the specific morphological marking will vary according to the current state of the language system.

    In Spanish it's the conservative wing that generally advocates the epicene usage of morphologically masculine nouns (e.g., "arquitecto"), while feminists tend to prefer explicitly feminine forms. The problem arises regarding what to use as the unmarked plural for a mixed or gender-irrelevant group, for which there seems to be no option but repetition (e.g., "arquitectos y arquitectas").

  17. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    In the 1930s, Q. D. Leavis was already being sarcastic when she titled her attack on Virginia Woolf "Lady Novelists and the Lower Orders."

  18. Kylopod said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    I'm surprised no one has brought up the word mistress. I doubt that anyone, even Fisk, is going to argue that people should say things like "She's a mistress knitter," though they might argue for the retention of phrases like "head mistress." There are major problems in using mistress as the feminine equivalent of master given its common meaning of "adulterous female lover." But the larger point is that master and mistress are essentially distinct words, not masculine and feminine variants on the same word. I think a lot of these -ess words have that quality, for those who bother to pay attention to the way they're commonly used. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but it's real enough.

  19. Vasha said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    @Colin: When I was in Germany 15 years ago, I was told that there was no feminine form of Soldat. Is one in the process of creation now?

  20. C Thornett said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    The ending -ster could once designate women in various occupations, which is why we have paired surnames like Baker/Baxter and Brewer/Brewster and the word spinster.

  21. Adam said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    He seemed to feel that most neutral terms were male, and would say "lady bus driver" and the like, to differentiate if the language lacked a term.

    Does a lady bus driver go on a buswoman's holiday?

  22. C said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    This may be relevant only to those who bother to read fantasy novels, or who play fantasy-based MMOs online, but I couldn't imagine losing the word "Sorceress" in favor of a generalized "Sorcerer." For one, it sounds so much nicer.

    What of a word like lioness?

  23. mollymooly said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    The unmarked-as-sexist argument has similarities to the debate over anglophone use of epicene "he". "The male embraces the female" went the schoolboy joke.

  24. BW said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:23 pm


    A female soldier would be a Soldatin – the word is regular and takes the -in ending like many other nouns. I'm surprised that you were told it didn't exist.

  25. Debbie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    What about the influences of pop culture on these terms, specifically actor/ess and ambassador/ess? The academy awards have dropped the gendered terms haven't they; and Star Trek has to my knowledge always used ambassador regardless of gender. As for the use of ambassador in the question where it was not as relevant to those asked, the pronoun? daughter and a name accompanied the title thus making it unnecessary to specify gender specific terms.
    Finally, I'm curious, we talk about heros but is it more common to say male/female role model?

  26. Michael Straight said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    Regarding Ben G's point, it would be interesting to do a study trying to measure how much people reacted to the use of these words to distinguish a person's gender. For example, which of these sentences seems more correct to you?

    1. There are few good roles available to older actresses.
    2. There are few good roles available to older, female actors.

    1. A female ambassador might not be accepted in Saudia Arabia.
    2. An ambassadress might not be accepted in Saudia Arabia.

  27. blahedo said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    Two observations:

    1) Absent other evidence, I would have guessed that "ambassadress" was made up on the spot as a deliberately ridiculous example.

    2) Per @exackerly's comment, I wonder how people would feel about pairing "Male Actor" and "Actress"? I at least find "actress" much less objectionable to indicate females when paired with a context that indicates that "actor" is itself gender neutral.

  28. MelissaJane said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    @Mollymooly – thus, by extension, shouldn't Jane Dowdall's husband have been the Lady Mayoress? If her gender didn't change the term by which her office was denoted, why shouldn't the same have been true of her husband? Interesting how it seems absolutely-beyond-the-pale impossible to bend gender in that direction.

  29. Nijma said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    I used to hang out with an actor, who told me the women he went to school with preferred to be called "actors" to emphasize their credentials: theater degrees and the skills required for real acting. The word served to differentiate them from porn stars or women who got cast because of their looks or relationships irregardless of whether they had studied acting method.

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