Monday, January 21, 2013


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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


What about the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School?  Of course there should be stricter gun laws and there should be no NRA. Of course there should be greater attention paid to troubled youngsters (and even oldsters) with a seriously antisocial attitude. But what there shouldn’t be—if only one could control it—is a mother like Nancy Lanza.

Da liegt der Hund begraben, as the German adage has it: there lies the buried dog, or, in the English equivalent, there’s the rub. In all this understandable uproar, there hasn’t been enough barking up the right tree (the dog image again!) at mother Nancy Lanza.

What exactly shooter Adam Lanza’s motive may have been we’ll never know for sure, but we could look more closely at Adam’s mother, without whom there would have been no Adam. She is the Eve who, however inadvertently, fed this Adam the apple, which in this case was the assault weapon AR-15.

Let us look at her more closely. What kind of woman keeps a deadly arsenal at home, a semiautomatic rifle and four handguns? Is this for the self-defense of a woman living alone, or with one unbalanced son, which proves more precarious? Either way, one handgun should be sufficient, unless perhaps the locale is Syria, Mexico or the Sudan, although even there more might be less useful. What good is even an armed innocent against a heavily armed killer with murder in his soul? But in peaceable, small-town Connecticut, a Texas congressman’s idea to turn high-school principals into gun-toting cowboys would seem—and be—absurd.

Yet not only did Nancy have such an arsenal, she was also proudly boasting about it in the bar where she was—suspiciously—a regular.  A barfly in the ointment, indeed. And she used her weaponry at the shooting galleries she frequented, taking her troubled son along. Such establishments should provide clients with one relatively harmless gun, and legally ban all others.

In any case, why bring Adam with her? Did she think that that’s the way to make a nerd macho? As far as I can gather, Adam did little or no shooting there. But watching his mother at it must have given him some notions. He must have learned all too well how to use guns.

That Adam was weird was apparent to any number of youngsters and probably not-so-youngsters at school and elsewhere. It may have been made clear by his older brother’s not visiting for the last two years. Also by the father’s having divorced Nancy and subsequently staying away from any contact. What does it mean that the 28 killings elicited only such scant, routine condolences from him?

Significantly, the first person Adam killed with several shots in the face was his mother. Was it only because she happened to be there, blocking his path? He could easily have sneaked out of the house when she was not watching him. Adam, after all, was twenty, and not some kid under close parental surveillance. And that, too, is peculiar. Why, given his acknowledged smartness, was he not in college?

He did, to be sure, speak of moving to the West Coast for some higher education. But why so far away, making it an idea as inchoate, as unreal, as our death is to most of us? More interesting yet is the fact that Nancy declared her willingness, if Adam chose California, to pick up stakes and make a home for him there. Could he have felt smothered by excessive coddling?

But those grade-schoolers—surely they were not suffocating him with some unwelcome and draining dependency. Rather, I think, they represented to Adam the larger enemy, humanity. Moreover, he himself had gone to that school years ago, and maybe harbored unhappy memories. Ultimately, though, it was a place where he knew his way around, and where a sizable chunk of humanity was conveniently gathered nearby into an exposed target. A vulnerable kind of infant humanity, unlikely to fight back. The same for some women teachers, no obviously formidable adversaries. Still, if, say, a factory, or some other adult assemblage, had existed a few miles away, there is no telling that he wouldn’t have hatched the same plan.  

Yet how come that Nancy was blind to the threat Adam represented? Well, is there anything blinder than blind mother love? Only stupidity, of which, too, Nancy may have had a healthy—or, rather, unhealthy—share. Little children, moreover, so dear to their parents, might have been a double target for Adam, a smart, and therefore unsuspected, lunatic, surely the most dangerous kind. His act was clearly excogitated rather than spontaneous. And doesn’t the Bible warn us about the danger to little children ever since Herod’s time?

I repeat, arming teachers won’t do. Perhaps better arm all politicians who support guns for everyone, and have a go at them. Is the danger that the pols are underarmed, hence the murder of our consul in Benghazi, a highly well-meaning diplomat? No, the danger is both inadequate mental health and gun laws (if those aren’t just one and the same problem). And don’t think for a moment that either Bloomberg or Obama or 28 dead can seriously change the situation.

No doubt our Constitution must bear some inadvertent blame. What is that business about the right to bear arms? Protection against whom? Indians? Brits? Hardly threats any more. But certainly not against the Adam Lanzas, who always shoot first, unexpectedly and lethally.