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17 May 2007

"Woman" Scorned

Why this use of "woman," a noun, as an adjective? "The first woman director..." and so forth. It comes up everywhere. The term is "female." You never hear about "Bush, a man president, yesterday bombed..."

I assume sexism. More like, deduce, from the top sources in the English language:

The Shorter OED CDROM on "woman":

Comb.: Appositional with the sense 'female', esp. in names of professions etc. (formerly) more usually pursued by men, as woman doctor, woman driver, woman police officer, woman-servant, woman teacher, etc. (pl. women doctors etc.).

On "man":

Appositional (pl. men) with the sense 'male', esp. in names of professions etc. more usually pursued by women, as man cook, man nurse, etc.

The New Fowler's on "feminine designations":

3 In practice, if the need arises to indicate the sex of an occupational or agent noun, woman, lady, or girl are sometimes used as prefixed modifiers: e.g.: woman doctor, driver, student; lady barrister, doctor; girl Friday, (US) girl scout. The whole question of gender distinctions in occupational and related names is sensitive, verging on explosive. All possible 'solutions' introduce ugliness or leave false expectations in their wake. Ours is an uneasy age linguistically. (p. 292)

Girl Friday? Are these guys living in the '40s?

In the entry on "female," The New (?) Fowler's notes that in the nineteenth century, "female" was considered derogatory (in England, at least) because it could be used for both animals and people. I think we can dispense with the "woman"-on-pedestal Victorianism in 2007, don't you?

Look up "male" -- not a whiff of the previous objection will you find, despite the statement that "male/masculine" "...entered the language from OF (ult. from L masculus) in the 14c. and gradually adopted different roles more or less parallel to those of FEMALE and FEMININE." (p. 477)

So, despite Fowler's inheritor, R. W. Burchfield's insistence -- he updated Fowler's in the mid-1990s, by the way -- there is an obvious term that isn't "ugly": "female." Nor do I forsee any "false expectations" left by that utterly clear and venerable term whose gender pair, "male," has been used in exactly the manner I encourage for "female" for ages without objection, accusations of animal-like "ugliness," or any tragic misunderstanding due to "false expectations."

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