Monday, January 21, 2013

THE -ESS WORDS



There used to be an anecdote around the American Cambridge that, whether apocryphal or not, had wide currency. One of the Radcliffe College dorms being Bertram Hall, story has it that when a lady was introduced to a visiting French academician as the mistress of Bertram Hall, he apologized for not knowing who Bertram Hall was.

The man had to be a Frenchman, for in France a mistress, especially the maîtresse en titre to royalty, could be proud of and respected for being a mistress. Thus a Frenchman could feel apologetic for not knowing who Bertram Hall was. However, for other reasons, other designations for women ending in –ess are rejected in modern society. In America, being mistress to the equivalent of royalty, a movie star, even if widely known, is not to be uttered; but the same holds true even for far less controversial –esses. Yet when you think of it, a few centuries ago Mistress was the proper title preceding the family name for respectable women.

Today, however, such terms as actress, poetess, airplane stewardess, among others, have become objectionable and discarded thanks to political correctness (let alone such things as Negress and Jewess). And yet, isn’t it a respectful recognition of femininity to call someone an actress or poetess?

Well, political correctness has pronounced it condescending to stress the female sex of a person. The argument usually runs that the –ess ending brackets you with animals, such as lioness and tigress. But isn’t that royalty of a kind? After all, there is no such thing as rabbitess or mousess.

There may be no glory in being a waitress, laundress or seamstress, but neither is there anything shameful about it. Granted that even “waiter” has become undesirable, so that we get server (as if it were tennis) or waitperson, which is ludicrous. Can you imagine a diner in a restaurant calling for the waitperson?

I would say that it is downright helpful that some words have feminine forms, as when a Frenchman or a German speaks of his amie or Freundin, thereby indicating that the relationship is heterosexual—not that that makes it better, merely different. It is actually confusing to use a circumlocution such as “female friend,” which can as easily mean friend girl as girlfriend.

I cannot help feeling uneasy when a beautiful actress refers to herself as an actor. Doesn’t it somehow imply that the feminine ending is less dignified, patronizing, or even ghettoizing? Not so for the divas of the past: in nobody’s parlance were Sarah Bernhardt or Eleonora Duse actors. Even much more recently, Helen Hayes and Ruth Gordon, Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were styled actresses.

The distinction is even more intense in poetry. “Poetess,” nowadays, implies one of those three-named women who publish verse at the bottom of newspaper columns and revel in such dated things as meter and rhyme. No one today would dare to refer to Sylvia Plath or someone even more recent as a poetess. And if the person in question were a tough lesbian like Adrienne Rich, calling her a poetess might have got you a punch in the kisser.

But again, go back into the past and it is perfectly respectable to be a poetess. Sappho was a Greek poetess and Louise Labé a French one. It is not until, I would guess, Emily Dickinson that “poet” becomes desiderated. And yet how confusing for today’s nonspecialist to read about H. D. without knowing that it was a woman, Hilda Doolittle. And who can tell about foreign names such as Turkish ones whether they are male or female? Or even about such Anglo ones as Leslie, Evelyn and sundry others.

There were female prose writers who deliberately wanted to be thought male, such as those Georges, Eliot and Sand. Admittedly “authoress,” before it became obsolete, might already have sounded funny. As a matter of euphony? Not when “prioress” was in good order. Then perhaps because of its rarity, and especially so today, when even Episcopal “priests” can be women.

How then about such most vehemently repudiated terms as Jewess or Negress? Quite some years ago, the critic Robert Brustein got criticized for referring to a female thespian as a “powerful negress.” It wasn’t just the lower-case “n,” but, even more, that –ess. You might suppose that the epithet “powerful” could have created a positive aura. All the more so as “black” or “black woman” would definitely not have passed muster, though today the opposite is true. Well might you ask where the logic is in such matters.

But “Jewess,” even with the capital letter, is unacceptable, as T. S. Eliot has been rightly reprimanded for a lower-case “jew” in a poem, which, however, he never changed. The feminine form, though, was unexceptionable to Sir Walter Scott, whose Rebecca in Ivanhoe is a valiant Jewess. Here I am reminded of Jonathan Miller, speaking about himself in the hit show Beyond the Fringe, as being not a Jew, merely Jewish. This by way of analogy with, say, “bluish” as being less blue than “blue.”
Also, more important, on the anti-Semitic notion that the less Jewish, the better.

The argument against “Jewess” is also that there is no such thing as Christianess and Protestantess. Therefore –ess must be derogatory. And if, for whatever reason, “Jewess” is scarce  and generally avoided, it turns excessive and deliberate, and thus in bad odor, even as such a recherché synonym as “Israelite” becomes an elucubrated edulcoration, and thus distasteful.

Certainly there are no longer stewardesses on airplanes, not even hostesses, as they were briefly known, inconsistently with their services. But the settled-on flight attendants has it downside too, sounding prissily excogitated and perhaps even servile. Isn’t a female servicing a public toilet called an attendant? Words matter, even where they shouldn’t.

Take a very tall woman. Would it be insulting to refer to her as a giantess? Or would it be preferable, as in the case of the actor-actress dichotomy, to call her a giant? Surely less desirable. I think the problem is that in English there aren’t enough examples of –ess endings, as, say, in German, where any noun can also have a female form ending in –in. In English, several of those that do exist are unpleasant, such as traitress, adulteress, procuress.

Of course, there are also respectable ones: sculptress, patroness, proprietress, millionairess, prophetess, baroness, countess, marchioness and duchess. But especially now, with the glass ceiling almost abolished, there ought to be many more. Why not, for instance, painteress and lawyeress? Then even my wife might call herself an ex-actress rather than an ex-actor.

8 comments:

  1. When a woman sits at the front of a violin section, she often refers to herself as a concertmaster, and not a concertmistress. If she referred to herself as the "concertmistress," would her male stand-partner think of himself as the "assistant concertmistress," or the "assistant concermaster?" In the case of musicians we tend to use the generic "principal" in non-German-speaking countries.

    We have the German language to thank for the outdated idea that the main people who "do" things are men, and that when a woman "does" something it is a rare enough case to warrant a suffex (or a suff-ess!). Blame it on the language! There are words that are inherently masculine, inherently feminine, and inherently neuter, but every profession and every title is masculine in the language. Oh yes, except for Putzfrau (cleaning woman) and Dirne (which is a feminine noun meaning "prostitute"). You don't need to be an woman living in a German-speaking culture to fully appreciate the irony.

    The term "Jewess" grows out of the Germanic practice. Since the German form for a Jew is masculine (Der Jude), a female would have to be feminized. The need to refer to a person who practices a certain religion with a masculinized noun also implies the "otherness" of Jewish people in the primarily Christian culture of Germany when its language was developing. It is the same with "negress."

    In order to avoid having to choose between having been an actress or an actor, your wife could simply say that she used to act.

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  2. Some occupations are sex-neutral, so I don't much care if -ess is used or not. What a male accountant and female accountant do is the same.
    But 'actress' makes sense because sex is central to roles men and women play. While men can play women roles and vice versa, most men play male roles and most women play female roles. So, it makes sense to speak of 'actors' and 'actresses'.
    Male roles and female roles in drama and movies aren't interchangeable like roles of male doctors and female doctors or roles of male bus drivers and female bus drivers. If you replace a male doctor with a female doctor, they'll be doing the same thing. But if you replace a man with a woman to play King Lear, that's gonna be weird.

    So, we should use -ess where sex does matter. It certainly matters in sports, so may be we should use the term athletess.
    And in dancing, so maybe we need the term dancess.
    And it matters among royalty, which is why we have kings and kingesses and princes and princesses, and dukes and duchesses, and counts and countesses, and earls and earlesses, etc.

    But what about gays and transvestites? They are not exactly -er or -ess. Maybe we should use the ending -ass since that's what gays go for.
    So, actass. Dancass. Princass.

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    Replies
    1. I suppose 'dumbass' is a dumb gay person.

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    2. @hual no just anyone who reads this blog unironically

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  3. John-

    Your fisticuffs vs Siskel and Ebert in regards to the Star Wars franchise is making the rounds right now.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytLjboeOtis

    (if you've forgotten)

    Anyway, that completely forgotten clip directed me to Google you because I just had to check out if you'd changed at all.

    I'm not some fancy Oxford/Sarah Lawrence/Fulbright/Loafer-wearing/Harvard/National Review/bow tie wearing/shameless Bloomberg whore/whatever but I just have to ask, don't you ever get sick of that? Are you ever lonely up in that ivory tower by yourself? Don't you ever tire of being the most brilliant man in the room?

    Ha j/k nobody cares.

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  4. God, if only Mr. Simon had been able to stop Star Warsmania, he would be the greatest hero of the 20th Century!

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  5. I recall a young Frenchwoman (a college grad student) informing me that in France, the feminists actually prefer the different endings for profession-names -- such as "doctoresse" rather than "docteur". If so, that would be a case of political correctness generating the same logic in diametrically opposite terms, depending on the culture.

    "There may be no glory in being a waitress, laundress or seamstress, but neither is there anything shameful about it."

    I remember being tickled by the word "seamster" when I first ran across it.

    "Granted that even “waiter” has become undesirable, so that we get server (as if it were tennis) or waitperson, which is ludicrous. Can you imagine a diner in a restaurant calling for the waitperson?"

    Then we have the evolution of "chairman" to "chairperson" to simply "chair" -- the logical conclusion of politically correct feminism: reducing us all to inanimate objects. One has wondered before, when considering Germaine Greer's puritanical streak (anti-prostitution, anti-pornography as "degrading"), whether the Victorian fashion of covering the bare ankles of tables and chairs does not express a consangineous aversion to the sex of the sexes.

    "I cannot help feeling uneasy when a beautiful actress refers to herself as an actor."

    Sometimes it seems perfectly appropriate -- as with Glenn Close.

    "How then about such most vehemently repudiated terms as Jewess or Negress?"

    Imagine Joan of Arc: "the Crusadress".

    "Of course, there are also respectable ones: sculptress, patroness, proprietress, millionairess, prophetess, baroness, countess, marchioness and duchess. But especially now, with the glass ceiling almost abolished, there ought to be many more."

    And what about the many possible "-trix"es...? (In an unpublished novel I wrote, I had a character refer to a female who was hauling things around as a "tractrix". Perhaps that's why it has remained unpublished...)

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