Sunday, May 27, 2007

Man-Waitress and Male Aviatrix

A non-work-related workplace conversation with Hannah led us to look into what English words exist primarily in the feminine gender, with the masculine version being based off them. More often, it's the other way around, with "actor" being the default word and "actress" being the modified version that specifies the person described as female. A quick Google search revealed that most linguists pick out two words that are, by default, feminine but still have masculine versions: "widow" and "bride." The masculine versions — "widower" and "bridegroom" — are both longer and clearly use the original feminine as the root.

Telling, no? The only words to have this honor refer to a married woman and a woman whose marriage has been ended by her husband's death.

Upon further discussion, however, I vote that English has a third, equally sexist construction. While the dictionary definition of "prostitute" may or may not demand that the word refers only to women, I feel that if you stopped some stranger and asked him or her to picture a prostitute, the image in their head would probably be the stereotypical streetwalker: big hair, fur coat, high heels, dangly jewelry, sad look in eyes. (Said stranger might just as easily deck you or run away, of course.) When speaking of men in that profession, people often affix "male" to the term. As in, "You've got your prostitutes and then you've got your male prostitutes." The differentiation is further needed by the lack of a term in American English to explain male prostitution. In Britain, you can just say "rent boy" and get your point across, but I feel people in the states would not be familiar with the term. There's also "gigolo" and "hustler," which can debatably be used to identify certain kinds of male prostitutes, but both can also have less pejorative meanings of "guy with a sugar mama" and "guy who steals your money at a pool table." Thus, because the phrase "male prostitute" is the best way to express the notion and is longer than the default "prostitute," I feel it belongs in the same category as "widow" and "bride."

So do you hear that, ladies? You can know claim "prostitute" in addition to the two other jobs society allots you in life. Bonus points for the first one who can claim all three!

EDIT: Immediately after posting this, I remembered another odd male/female construction that merits a mention. Back when I was editing county news at the Nexus, a reporter wrote a story about a local ballet company in which she wanted to refer to ballerinas and their male counterparts. She asked me if male ballet dancers had a name, and I realize I didn't know. Copy didn't know either. I called my dance major friend, who'd been wearing tutus all her life, and she said she'd never heard of such a term either. (She suggested "ballerinos," but I declined to use it.) So we called the ballet company and asked them. To our surprise, they said the technical term for male ballet dancers was "cavalier," though the term can also mean anything from "a young man of fashion" to "horseman" to "mounted solider." I later used the discovery in an internship application cover letter as representing one of the reasons I liked being an editor: the various problems writers faces so often end up with an editor learning something obscure that they would never had bothered to look up had they not been set with the task editing the story to begin with.

2 comments:

  1. It's also pretty inherently weird that the adopted term for a female ballet dancer is an Italian word meaning "little girl who dances." So to call a male ballet dancer a "ballerino" would imply that he, too, was diminutive in some way. And Italian men are not big on being referred to as diminutive in any way. Goes against that whole "vitellone" attitude.
    Cavalier is a way better word, especially because male ballet dancers cannot be so easily described as "small in frame" as all ballerine are.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous1:10 PM

    I think you forgot the term "male nurse," although that is, thankfully, much rarer these days. Of course, the word "manny" (a male nanny) is becoming more prevalent, so it's a matter or two steps forward, one step back.

    Sean Work

    ReplyDelete