Friday, June 3, 2011


The suffix -ess has been used since the Middle Ages to form nouns denoting female persons, using a neutral or male form as the base (such as hostess from host or actress from actor). In the late 20th century many of these feminine forms came to be seen as old-fashioned, sexist, and patronizing, and the ‘male’ form is increasingly being used as the ‘neutral’ form, where the gender of the person concerned is simply unspecified because irrelevant. Some -ess forms have all but vanished (e.g. poetess, authoress, editress), but some persist in varying degrees, many falling into these categories:
■ they denote someone very different from the the male ‘equivalent’ (e.g. mayoress, the wife of a mayor, not a female mayor; governess, not a female governor; countess if she is the wife of an earl; manageress, who might manage a restaurant but not a football team, or hostess, who could not be the presenter of a television programme)
■ they are fixed titles (e.g. princess)
■ the male equivalent word is rather different in form (e.g. abbess, duchess, mistress)
■ in a few cases where there has been a completely different expression for the male equivalent, both have given way to new neutral forms; for instance, air hostesses and stewards are now generally both called flight attendants.

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