What gender specific descriptors remain/will remain?

I’m not trying to advance a position as to whether gender specific descriptors (e.g. actor/actress) are good or bad. Instead, I’m just trying to adapt my personal word choices to current custom. And, I’m curious if there are some instances in which separate gender descriptors will remain.

If this is more appropriate in IMHO, please move it. But I thought it might be possible for a factual answer to reflect common usage in various settings.

I had perceived near exclusive use of “actor” to refer to performers of any gender. I was curious how that would be reflected in the Academy Awards, and google suggests they still refer to actor/actress.

Is it more common/desirable to use the “male” term to be used to describe all genders, or to seek out gender neutral terms (waitstaff/chair, instead of waiter/chairman)?

I’ve been trying to come up with instances in which a term w/ a diminuitive - traditionally female - ending will remain in common use. Perhaps majorette - describing a typically female baton twirler?

Like “actor”, surely “waiter” is already inherently gender neutral, etymologically just “someone who waits”? It’s only usage that has limited it to men, and like the evolving use of actor that’s something that could change.

You know, that’s something I’ve never thought of before.

Did the male/neutral terms come first, because only men were able to participate in those professions? And only later, when women began waiting tables/acting, did the feminine/diminuitive suffix get added?

And - I’m sure this has been discussed before. But why do some professions/activities have gender specific terms, while others (pilot, engineer, athlete… - a majority?) do not?

What you say makes sense. But in terms of usage, throughout my life, if a woman was serving meals or acting, she was described as an actor. And this was something I perceived as universal - not solely w/in my misogynistic circle.

Mostly, yes. Few professions, outside of prostitute, were filled overwhelmingly by women. Although a handful of women could be found in almost every walk of life, the default personification of any profession was male.

Therefore, there needn’t be any distinction between the male usage and the neutral one. Indeed, the male was considered neutral. In virtually all laws, reference was made to he and him, which sufficed to indicate its applicability to all. (There’s a phrase something like, but not exactly, “the male includes the female” that makes this formal in court hearings.)

I’m older than you, I think, and when I grew up the common terms for women were actress and waitress. You might also see references to Jewess and Negress. The Oscars will probably give up Actress within a few years as most women in Hollywood are battling against it.

You list some interesting examples of neutrality, but they aren’t completely innocent. Athletes remained neutral but the term sportsmen has no widely-used female equivalent. (Sportswoman shows up at 5% of the Google hits as sportsman.) Aviatrix was the preferred term for a female pilot, easily used because no commercial airline had female pilots so any aviatrix was an amateur and therefore an exception. Airlines did have stewardesses, of course. We forget today that the first ones were trained nurses and only later did they get sexualized as bait for businessmen. Engineers, like pilots, saw an sizable influx of women so recently that old-fashioned gendered terms were presumably obsolete by the time they otherwise would have been used. I can’t explain athlete, though, unless the near total absence of high-quality professional women’s teams also came about too late.

I’d say “actor” has transitioned to almost fully gender-neutral in my lifetime - I say almost fully because although it’s now standard to refer to a female actor, the word actress is also still in common use.

But wouldn’t it still be unusual to call a woman a waiter? Or am I just out of touch?

Yes, aviatrix, but that is distinct from aviator, not pilot, no?

Your mention of prostitute made me think of succubi/incubi. Now where is the cancel culture for sexual spirits?! :wink:

I wonder what the Academy will do for actresses. I assume they will wish to keep the distinct categories, as common belief is the industry lacks as many quality female roles. Of course, they don’t go the other way, and split actor to say, “of color”, English speaking, etc.


Yeah. Generally speaking, if the original term is only male because a female form also exists, then it makes sense to just not use the female form, rather than come up with a new word.

Places where that doesn’t work are ones where the word specifically refers to men. Hence why we use fire fighter and mail carrier instead of fireman and mailman, respectively.

As for the broader question from the title, I note that language will tend to lag behind practice, so if the gendered versions describe different roles (e.g. groom and bride), they won’t tend to use a gender neutral version. Only if and when the gender distinctions become irrelevant do we tend to change to using a gender neutral version more often than the gendered version. Heck, in some cases, I’m not sure we even have a gender neutral word (also, e.g. groom and bride).

And, yes, I do notice that the gender neutral term for waiter/waitress has tended to become “server.” That seems to be an exception to the rule in my first paragraph. Most of the time, the -ess or -ix version just gets dropped.

Edit: It does occur to me that the rule about gendered roles may also change due to inclusion of enbies (non-binary people). Such calls out for the need of a gender neutral term, even while the other terms are used more often.

I also note that existing gender neutral variants of terms with gendered roles tend to exist anyways if there are situations where you won’t know the gender, (e.g. spouse, sibling), but those are not generally the preferred term (yet).

A rare case where the female descriptor is (theoretically) treated as gender-neutral: Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

Ever since the establishment of Girton College, this position has been held by a female, even though male candidates have had equal rights for running for the office since 1976 and would, if elected, be called by the female term “Mistress”.

(Two decades ago, there was some snickering when Girton appointed its first-ever male second-in-command…because his official title was “Vice-Mistress.”)

Is this because the waiter/waitress usage was somehow so “ingrained” that it was just too difficult for us to transition to using waiter for both? It’s puzzling, it seems completely analogous to actor/actress, I’m not sure why the linguistic path was different. Is it because Hollywood exerts so much influence, so their deliberate prescribed change was sufficient to overcome prior usage habits?

This reminds me of a once-common but now (I’m fairly sure) dead-as-Caesar usage: mayoress. Which did not mean a woman mayor but a mayor’s wife, and referred to her First Lady-esque informal duties like sponsoring charities. Once there were women mayors, I doubt many were called mayoress because that was a different thing than (albeit with a very specific relationship :slightly_smiling_face: to) mayor. Indeed, the Wikipedia article on mayoress gives a couple of instances of woman mayors naming someone else as mayoress.

The actor/actress concept follows the general rule already noted with doctress and aviatrix, which just merged into doctor and aviator. So I think waiter/waitress is the actual exception.

As for why? I’m not sure, but my gut suspicion is that somehow the word “waiter” itself fell out of favor, independently of the gender neutrality issue. The first place I saw waiter being replaced with server was from within the industry itself, seemingly part of the movement to dignify service work. And I do personally feel the connotation of “waiting on someone” is more subservient than the one for “serving someone food.”

I don’t think it’s just a gender thing. IMHO, waiter has connotations of a fancier restaurant and more formality than server does. “I’m ____, and I’ll be your waiter tonight” at, say, TGI Fridays would sound as odd from a man as a woman. :slightly_smiling_face:

(Ninja’d somewhat by BigT)

You can, at least as a conservative approximation, look all this stuff up in the dictionary. Does it say a word is obsolete? If so, think carefully before using it.

Example: queen. Not obsolete. So king vs queen remains.

Baxter— obsolete. So just write “baker”.

“Actress” is obsolete except when referring to a female player on the stage, but “actor” was the original term anyway.

“Aviatrix” is out.


ETA “doctress”?? Never heard anyone called that, and according to the dictionary it is— obsolete. No question there.

The Academy Awards, for example, still have separate awards for “actor/actress”. I wonder if that will eventually become obsolete. There doesn’t seem to be any logical sense to segregate awards by gender. Even roles aren’t restricted to gender; males have played female roles going back to antiquity, for example.

I don’t mean to hijack this thread, but I do think this does speak to the original subject. Society has arbitrarily separated a number of professions based on gender, and that goes deeper than simple terminology; it also includes the way we celebrate success in those professions.

The mention of bride/groom made me think of the terms husband/wife in non hetero unions. Does wife simply refer to the genetically female, and husband to the genetically male? What do nonbinaries call their spouses/partners?

And how about mother and father? Son/daughter?

I wish to clarify that I suspect my views are largely influenced by my cis experience. I really do not suggest anyone should be referred to using any terms other than they prefer. I’m simply curious so that I will lessen my chances of mis-speaking, but also because I find specific word usage and evolution in usage interesting.

For some of these, yes.


It is an interesting question, but practically speaking you should not get too confused, gender is strange but that’s what you get for speaking an indo-European language.

Yes, in same-sex marriages you can have eg two wives or a kid can have two mothers,

This seems… confused.

Non-hetero? A gay couple are obviously both the same gender, by definition. Two wives or two husbands.

If you misspoke in saying “non-hetero” and you are thinking about a union where one person is trans - well, if it is a straight couple then obviously the man is the husband and the woman is the wife, the fact that one spouse is trans doesn’t change that.

In what scenario do you imagine “genetically male” (by which I assume you mean male sex-assigned-at-birth) is any consideration? I really can’t think of one.

I think this is better for IMHO than GQ.