Gender in Nouns
Conveying gender in English nouns
In many other languages, especially the Romance languages (such as French, Spanish, and Italian), a large number of nouns are coded as being either feminine or masculine.
This used to be the case in Old English as well, but in modern English only certain nouns that describe a person who performs an action are inflected for gender. This is usually achieved by changing the end of the word to a feminine suffix, such as “-ess,” “-ine,” and “-trix.” Words are less commonly changed to specifically reflect masculine gender, but the few that do use the suffixes “-er” or “-or.”
Making a noun feminine
Of the nouns that decline to mark gender, most do so to indicate the noun as being feminine. However, even this practice is becoming less common in modern English.
The most common suffix used to mark feminine nouns is “-ess.” It is used primarily to identify a professional, noble, royal, or religious title of a woman. For example:
The use of “-ess” to distinguish females working in a certain profession is beginning to wane, giving way to the basic masculine form (actor is becoming more common to refer to both males and females) or a non-gendered alternative (flight attendant is now preferred to either steward (m) or stewardess (f)).
However, gendered titles of royalty, nobility, and religiosity are still common in modern English.
The other suffix most commonly recognized as being a feminine marker is “-ette,” due largely to its use in the term suffragette, the name given to supporters and advocates of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century (especially in Britain).
Two other words commonly distinguished as feminine using this suffix are bachelorette (a young unmarried woman, used especially in the context of “bachelorette parties”) and brunette (a girl or woman with brown hair), both of which terms are still widely used in modern English today.
Other than the above examples, though, “-ette” is more commonly used to refer to non-gendered items that are small or diminutive, such as cigarette, kitchenette, novelette, launderette, cassette, and so on.
Other feminine suffixes
Other than “-ess” and “-ette,” the only extant suffixes that signify femininity are “-ine,” used to form heroine (from hero), and “-trix,” which almost only appears in old-fashioned or legalistic terms, such as aviatrix (from aviator), executrix (from executor), or mediatrix (from mediator).
Making a noun masculine
Nouns that are, were, or can be distinguished between feminine and masculine genders are often masculine in their basic form. These tend to end in “-er” or “-or” to denote someone who performs the action of a verb. For example:
Increasingly in modern English, the distinction of the above terms as being solely or inherently masculine is fading away, and the terms refer to anyone—regardless of gender identity—who performs such an action or role.
Uniquely, there is one word that is inherently feminine that can take the suffix “-er” to become masculine: we make the inherently feminine word widow (meaning a woman whose spouse had died) masculine by adding “-er”—widower (a man whose spouse has died).
Nouns with inherent gender identity
There is a relatively small number of nouns in English that are inherently gendered because they describe members of the male or female sex; they do not use suffixes to alter the meaning of an existing word. Most commonly, they are terms describing familial, social, or sometimes royal titles.
Below is a list of common (but by no means exhaustive) examples:
groom (less commonly, bridegroom)
We also have specific gendered words to identify male and female members of animal types. Although some are dependent on the use of suffixes (for instance, a female lion is a lioness), many are totally unique words specific to that gender. Here are a few common examples:
- gender (encyclopedia)
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