Language Evolves. Sort Of.

Celebrating Women’s History Month!

Many gendered nouns have become passé.

I grew up in a gendered-language world, and one that remained pretty much strictly divided that way for most of my fairly long lifetime. We spoke of actors and actresses; waitresses and waiters. There were stewardesses and stewards (mostly stewardesses, as it was often beneath the dignity of a male to serve in such a capacity except, inexplicably, aboard ship), and cowboys and cowgirls. We had heroes and heroines, landlords and landladies. We had, still have, lions and lionesses. We may have prayed to a monotheistic deity as merely God—always conceptualized as a white-bearded Caucasian male–but there were ancient gods and goddesses, and those who worshipped them were priests and priestesses, witches and warlocks, prophets and prophetesses.

But the world turns and language evolves, and many, most, of those gendered nouns have become passé. So rarely are some of them used that people of the youngest generations may never even have heard of many of them.

Which brings me to the question: Why is it always the male version of the noun which becomes predominant? With a few notable exceptions (i.e., witch, now often applied to those of any gender who practice the ancient religion of Wicca), it is only the male version of the noun which becomes acceptable in writing and speech. Consider, by way of example, that no matter what pronoun the individuals themselves choose—she, he, they, or some bizarre permutation–every Hollywood performer is now referred to as an actor; a woman who executes an act of valor is a hero. Why should this be so?

Well, duh. Because males everywhere would rise up in mammoth protest were they to be identified by a female-gendered noun. Can you even imagine the results if any writer or newscaster referred to one of those badass male Hollywood action performers as an actress?! What might you expect if you signaled for the male server at your favorite restaurant by calling him a waitress? Spitting on your food would be the mildest response, I should think. Even with the gender-neutral Wiccans, who worship both female and male deities, it’s common to qualify the noun by referring to a “male witch”.

The female-gendered nouns simply whisper away.

It’s unfortunately the case that contemporary gender norms, tackling the vagaries of an ancient but evolving English language, have become a veritable minefield even for those most willing to accept, understand and involve themselves in changing customs. One can view the substantive efforts of writers and speakers to be gender-inclusive by using only the male noun as an uplifting change—or as just one more example of males taking credit for a whole lot more than their share. “All mankind under God”, after all, just has a more decisive ring than “All humankind under the Deity”, doesn’t it? Or does the second choice, in fact, sound better—more powerful, more all-encompassing?

Does anyone, I wonder, ask an upcoming Hollywood starlet (yes, starlet) not just for her pronouns, but whether she prefers to be referenced as an actress? Does the newscaster request information before broadcast about whether the woman who’s achieved a remarkable rescue wishes to be called a heroine, and not a hero? Or is it the sad truth that, because they are women, their opinion and permission is not sought?

An acquaintance long ago queried me on why I usually refer not to God, but to the Divine. I explained that the higher power in which I firmly believe is neither male nor female, but the composite of and greater than both. As I further explained to my inquisitive friend, my late and greatly-beloved mother-in-law began every blessing at the table with “Father-Mother God”, a phrase which I came to associate with her and to love. Yet even that assigns gender, if two genders, to what I see as a creative, protective, genderless Power. Divine One is, to me, all-inclusive.

Still, I find that, in my personal prayers, I often begin with the Mother. Speaking to Her as Goddess somehow brings that unknowable Divinity closer to me.

It’s true that one becomes less flexible in one’s thinking as age creeps along; it’s a situation greatly to be battled against if one wants to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. Nevertheless, despite knowing that it is becoming passé, I shall go on thinking of those Hollywood icons as actors or actresses. I will recognize Moses as a prophet, but his irrepressible sister Miriam (“Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses?”) as a prophetess. Yet I will do my best to think of the person bringing food to my table as a server. I will attend Pagan Pride day (great shopping!) and see practitioners of an ancient faith, not female or male witches.

I will always be the possessor of a mind trained by the usage and customs of my earliest upbringing, but I’ll do my damndest to evolve as both understanding and language advance.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “Language is a Funny Thing”, which you can locate in the Archives by scrolling below. It was published on June 5, 2019.

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