Sunday, May 27, 2007

Kitty on Her Tibby-Toes

A quick addendum to the previous post regarding words and gender: The same site that told me about the widow/widower, bride/bridegroom thing also explained that the masculine "tomcat" has a feminine version that I'd never heard of. Apparently, the complement to "tomcat" is "tibcat," though the latter seems fairly archaic. Even the British, who originated the term, don't seem to use it very often anymore.

What's especially interesting "tibcat" is that by virtue of the feminine version vanishing from English, the generic "cat" could arguably become associated with female cats. Most people are familiar with the expression "tomcat" — perhaps as the verb "to tomcat," meaning to roam around looking for sexual gratification — but if the term is associated with male cats without an understood complement for females, the construction could arguably become "tomcat and cat," as in "dog and bitch," "cock and hen," "lion and lioness." What, then, does that say about the culture that uses the feminine synonymously with the generic?

The two other animal words that jump to mind as examples of the feminine being used frequently to refer to the whole species are "cow" and "duck." Think about it: How often do you drive by a dairy and say "Look at all the cows and bulls"? You don't. Regardless of how many of the animals are male, the whole group gets takes the female term, possibly because the activity humans most associate with them — milking — is inherently feminine. Ducks do too, though what feminine association we have with ducks is beyond me. "Duck" can technically refer to the species as a whole or the just the lady-ducks, with "drake" referring to just the man-ducks. (I blame Ducktales for the confusion.)

What trips me up when speaking of these strange animal gender problems is that other familiar species avoid the problem altogether by having an understood name for the male, the female and the whole species in general. Take sheep, for example. Most people know that a boy sheep are rams and girl sheep are ewes, yet we can still refer to them by their species name and not identify gender one way or the other.

Strange, strange.

And on a final note, does this mean that Mindy and Sally Sue can go out on the town, tibcatting around?

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