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Is there a general rule how to create feminine words?

For example feminine from waiter is waitress, from actoractress, etc.

So, generally the ending -ess means the feminine form. But I’ve never heard feminine forms for writer, programmer, designer etc. Is there a rule by which a native speaker would create feminine forms? Or is creating feminine forms simply not so important for native speakers?

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As with most things in English, no, there isn't a general rule. Some words in -er have feminine counterparts in -ress.1 And most words that end with -man can be feminized by changing it to -woman. But for any given word, the only way to tell whether such a feminized version exists is to look it up in the dictionary. In other words, you can't really go about creating feminine equivalents of random occupational words; you can merely use feminine equivalents, if they exist.

Note also that there is a tendency towards using one word for all genders. Sometimes, this involves using a genderless equivalent: police officer instead of policeman/policewoman, or flight attendant instead of stewardess, for example. Other times, it involves using the traditionally-male word for all genders: for example, actor for both male and female, instead of actor for male and actress for female.

1 Some -er occupations (used to) become -ster, e.g. baxter = female baker, and brewster = female brewer (of ale). These terms went obsolete so long ago that most people these days don't even know that baker once had a feminine version.

  • Perfect. I always thought it was weird that words like "actor" specifically referred to men. I suppose this rises out of tradition. There is no etymological basis to this, is there? Isn't an "actor" literally "one who acts", with -or being sort of a modified version of the suffix -er? Or am I wrong? – Ken Bellows Jan 25 '13 at 12:45
  • @KenB Actors did used to be fairly exclusively male, I understand: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boy_player – mcalex Feb 12 '13 at 13:39
  • @mcalex Right, but that's strictly traditional and cultural, not etymological, am I right? – Ken Bellows Feb 12 '13 at 14:58
  • And some people still prefer actress. – Lambie Mar 21 at 15:06
  • @KenBellows Anything language-related is by definition etymological. That being said, a lot of gendered words in English come from the French influence on the language. The origin of "-ess" as in actor/actress and similar words comes from Old French. Source: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/-ess#English – GetOffMyLawn Mar 21 at 18:02
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Words with distinctly feminine forms are usually old. Words that signify an occupation that formerly was exclusively male, or didn't exist in earlier times, seldom have feminine forms, and indeed, the use of feminine forms (even if they do exist) is dying out.

However, if a word does end in -ess, it almost certainly refers to a female occupation. Some words ending in -ess, being generally associated with females, have no (or very rarely used) male counterparts, for example "seamstress".

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I can't speak for other English speaking nations, but in 21st century America just making an effort to draw a distinction between genders is all too often considered offensive. That having been said, I find a certain charm to gender specific terms. Guess I'm just 'old fashioned'. Unfortunately English, especially Americanized English, has a tendency to outright steal words from other languages so spelling in English isn't as easy as some more orderly languages. Even so, here are a couple of pointers:

If it ends in "-tor" then drop the -tor in favor of a "-trix"

So "aviator" becomes "aviatrix" and "administrator" becomes "administratrix"

If the word ends in "-ter" then drop the -ter in favor of "-tress"

So "hunter" becomes "huntress" and "enchanter" becomes "enchantress"

And if all else fails you can try just hanging a "-ess" off the end of the word:

So "lion" becomes "lioness" and "author" becomes "authoress"

But these are not rules you can count on because "protector" can become "protectress" and don't even bother looking for "actrix" in your spell check dictionary!

There are a few other suffixes that indicate female gender but the rules of spelling get even more obscure. Such as "farmer" becomes "farmerette" and "wolf" becomes "she-wolf".

What can I say- besides "Good Luck!"

4

It isn't that important, and some words can't be feminised, such as the ones mentioned in the question.

People would normally attempt to use, if possible, a genderless word so as not to cause possible offence,

  • 1
    The question is not about what ought to be used, but how do those words are formed. – theUg Jan 23 '13 at 21:42
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    @theUg: What you say is true, but this is a site for English Language Learners, many of whom may be highly likely to attach too much importance to gender in language, since their native language may be much more gender-based than English. Therefore I think this answer best reflects the position one would wish to encourage. – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '13 at 22:24
  • ellpc.stackexchange.com ? I agree, this is a site for English Language Learners, and OP does ask for rules. Imho, the best answer got the points. It explained the language and mentioned the gender issue. This answer only mentioned the gender issue. – mcalex Feb 12 '13 at 13:41
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I read classical literature as a hobby. Here's my understanding of the suffix ess. Prince is to princess. Duke is to duchess. Master is to mistress. Emperor is to empress. Baron is to baroness. Count is to countess. These are titles of British aristocracy. I, personally, would assume the suffix ess fits well with titles given to a person of nobility. There are some exceptions that I've read. Lioness is the female lion. It probably comes down to what is pleasing to the listener. The word actor is a gender neutral word that defines an occupation. I, personally, wouldn't feminize any words that are gender neutral.

Make any sense? Hope this helps.

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