19

Somewhat related: "Are feminine nouns ending with -ess the only proper option for females?"

In German, I can slap -in on anything that shall be gendered. No exceptions (or at least I can't think of one at the moment, feel free to make me eat my words). The English version is -ess, but "deviless" is completely uncommon (although in the dictionary). "Devilette" is also used (as rarely), "she-devil" is almost always metaphoric. Methinks everyone (10x more Google hits) weasels out by using "demoness" (which is technically wrong from the mythological standpoint, but since you rarely meet one who gets annoyed by the wrong moniker...).

Which option is the best here? (And are there more person nouns refusing -ess? Besides regular -ette and -trix forms found in the above link, I mean)

10
  • 8
    The Devil is a proper noun, as mentioned by @AustinHemmelgarn, and so has no gender. Demoness is not a weasel word, since demoness is... a female demon. If referring to a female devil then absolutely I'd write she-devil. This is certainly why She-Hulk is She-Hulk, not Hulkette or Hulkess.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 31, 2022 at 5:49
  • 2
    “As a German, I can slap -in on anything that shall be gendered.” As a German, you can certainly do this, even if it only makes sense for nouns that refer to a person or an animal, but the rate of cases where this does not result in a grammatically well-formed word is high, e.g. words that imply a male gender (der Mann), gender-indifferent personal designations (die Person, die Lehrkraft), substantiated participles or adjectives (der Lehrende), ... Feel free to find more exceptions.
    – marianoju
    Jan 31, 2022 at 9:52
  • 2
    She-Devils are quite different from demonesses. One flirts with wayward men to their eventual demise the other guts and roasts you in a dark place while Baby Shark plays in the background.
    – EllieK
    Jan 31, 2022 at 13:53
  • 1
    @EllieK alternatively, she’s looks like an angel, she’s the Devil in disguise.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 1, 2022 at 6:20
  • 1
    I think there's a difference between "demon" and "devil" in that, traditionally, there is only ONE Devil, who is in most mythologies using that word explicitly male. By contrast, there are any number of demons, who may be either male or female. Feb 1, 2022 at 18:05

7 Answers 7

21

‘devil’ (with a lowercase ‘d’, with a capital ‘D’ it’s usually a proper name with a specific associated gender) is not inherently gendered in English. It’s often implicitly masculine for cultural reasons, but unlike German and most other Indo-European languages, English does not inherently gender nouns any more than culture dictates they should be, and even that is becoming increasingly uncommon.

The only time in ‘modern’ writings or usage you are likely to encounter explicitly gendered nouns in English are:

  • When the gender truly matters, such as when discussing animal husbandry (English has a plethora of gendered forms for common domestic animals, even extending to specific age categories and other aspects of animals, and these are never really going to completely go away, though some have fallen out of common usage in this context). The reality is though that it often does not matter what gender the individual being discussed is.
  • When translating from a language where gender is implicit in the noun, and the translator is trying to preserve as much as possible.

If you absolutely have to gender a noun (and you should almost never need to do so in normal usage), the usual form I see the most is to use woman/lady/female as an adjective (or usually male for explicitly gendering nouns that are assumed feminine by default, which are pretty rare). Occasionally you might see a more traditional form if it was widely used (for example, compounds ending in ‘master’ I often still see gendered as female by changing it for ‘mistress’), but that is becoming at best uncommon.


On a side note, your example case in German is a still a thing in German because German still has complete ternary grammatical gender as a core part of the language, and it is almost impossible for most people to fully divorce grammatical gender from personal gender when talking about people. See for comparison Swedish, which has merged the masculine and feminine genders (but kept the neuter, making it a bit of a black sheep in the Germanic language family), and is in a generally similar situation to English where explicitly gendered nouns are falling out of favor for general usage.

12
  • 8
    Note that you can get in trouble for prefixing a gender-neutral noun with a feminine marker. It carries implications which you may not actually want to convey.
    – Kevin
    Jan 31, 2022 at 4:43
  • 4
    Grammar with three grammatical genders. Germans have masculine, feminine and neuter. Jan 31, 2022 at 11:45
  • 5
    @HaukeReddmann I thought in French the rule was that a group is only considered female if every member is female? Feb 1, 2022 at 3:13
  • 1
    @SolomonUcko That's correct except we rather not say “female” or “masculine” to describe this from the grammatical point of view. This is because grammatical gender and usual gender are distinct (even if there is a lot of overlapping). Grammar books such as Grévisses' prefer to say “genre non marqué” and “genre marqué” which approximately mean “unemphasised gender” and “emphasised gender.” The only group of people the language sees as a specific case is when there is only women in the group. Compare to German where masculine/neutral are very close. (Not a grammarian here. :-)) Feb 1, 2022 at 15:23
  • 2
    @AustinHemmelgarn "(English has a plethora of gendered forms for common domestic animals, even extending to specific age categories and other aspects of animals, and these are never really going to completely go away, though some have fallen out of common usage in this context)" I'd go so far as to say that they're basically technical jargon used by farmers, at this point.
    – nick012000
    Feb 2, 2022 at 12:11
25

Gender isn't as big a feature of English as it is of German. Devil isn't a word with gender, though forms like she-devil or devil woman might be used to counter the default gender assumption among English speakers about devils.

Most of grammatical gender in English is in pronouns and possessive adjectives, and there's no gender agreement between nouns and adjectives.

I should add that the suffixes you mentioned, -ette, -ess, and -trix can't be applied freely unless you are being creative or trying for humor, so you should probably stick with attested forms.

12

I know this answer does not focus on whether one should write "female devil", "she-devil" or "demoness", but as I understand it, the OP was also interested in knowing whether there are other suffixes apart from -ess, -ette, and -trix that can be used to create the female counterpart.

ORIGINAL ANSWER

The noun adjuncts; woman, female, and the suffixes; -woman and -ess to denote the gender of a profession or person is falling out of fashion.

It's increasingly rare to read or talk about a woman/female doctor, today the profession is doctor regardless of sex or gender.

Old Fashioned Rare Gender Neutral
actress --- actor
air hostess / stewardess -- flight attendant
barmaid -- bartender (US)
chairwoman -- chairperson
female writer/author authoress writer/author
female doctor doctoress / doctress doctor
female singer songstress singer
headmistress -- head teacher (UK)
male nurse -- nurse
female painter paintress painter
policewoman -- police officer
sportswoman -- sports person
waitress -- server (US)
she-devil demoness devil
13
  • 7
    Now that's...well, amusing it is only for the satirists, but in Germany it runs exactly the other way round: any "untagged" form is seen as defaulting to "male" (even if grammar says otherwise) and thus has to be gendered with an artificial construction, which changes every second month because another minority protests they weren't included, with the dire effect that it makes their justified interests a laughing stock. I so wish that Germany could solve it the way you demonstrated, i.e. simply say "devil", with no implied gender. Jan 30, 2022 at 14:55
  • 7
    I think that it's worth noting that while many people consider words like "waitress" and "chairwoman" old-fashioned, as you say, they are still in VERY common use. Jan 31, 2022 at 2:42
  • 2
    @RonJohn the question asks "what's the best option here". The answer says the best option is not to gender your professions. That this advice has changed since the 1950s isn't really relevant to what the best option is now.
    – Jontia
    Jan 31, 2022 at 10:07
  • 3
    @Mari-LouA In the Bible "Devil" refers to Satan, a singular entity and thus the gender is inherent. "devil", however, refers to beings of that nature and has no gender. Feb 1, 2022 at 0:44
  • 3
    @dan04 historically and traditionally the gender of God was never in question: "Our father who art in heaven..." “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” (NKJV) No sign of ambiguity there.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 1, 2022 at 21:05
6

Compare it to other nouns like dog or horse. Yes, there are gender-specific words for a female or male member of those species, but you are just as correct to simply say dog or horse when referring to an animal of either gender.

So, a devil is not a male devil. It is more a term like human. Would you say "she-human" or "humaness"? More likely you'd refer to the devil by a more specific term. For demons there are Incubus and Succubus which refer specifically to male and female demons, respectively.

There are not any mythological or literary equivalents in English to the Incubus or Succubus. Most sources do not differentiate between devils and demons, and the terms are generally interchangeable. Modern literature and games have used the terms as to imply they are different, but that is a more modern distinction. Even the term "The Devil" is a fairly modern term, something arising from many older forms that generally translate to "Slanderer" or "One who lies". Devil and demon have both become synonymous with "evil, intelligent being".

In short, there is no correct form and you are not wrong to use any gender-related form.

6

In English "she-devil" is recognisably idiomatic from literature, and would seem to be the best option. You say it is mainly metaphoric, but beyond fiction, calling anyone a devil (other than the devil from Christian theology) is surely metaphoric? An example of this prefix in fiction that springs to mind is in Marvel comics, the female counterpart to the Incredible Hulk was named "She-Hulk".

The idea that you can put '-ess' on the end of a term and make it female is not correct. In most cases (there are exceptions), this suffix is exchanged for a masculine suffix such as '-er' or '-or'. For example, 'actor' and 'actress' have long been the masculine and feminine counterparts respectively, just like 'seamster/seamstress', 'manager/manageress' etc. Others examples adhere more closely to the Latin feminine form, such as 'testator/testatrix', or 'dominator/dominatrix'. English has always had masculine, feminine and neuter terms - for example, musician titles like 'pianist' and 'flautist' are neuter. If you have ever seen the suffix '-ess' added to an already complete neuter term to feminise it, chances are that it has been done for artistic (likely comedic) effect and is not a true English word.

In recent years many female thespians (a neuter term for both actors and actresses) have preferred to be called 'actor', believing 'actress' to be some kind of lesser term. Likewise, you will find some references to 'doctress', but it never took hold in the medical profession and 'doctor' has been used as a gender-neutral term for some time.

Actually, it is the other suffix you mentioned '-ette' that is a diminishing suffix, to make something smaller, and is not a feminine suffix at all. For example, a "featurette" is a short film. I believe it is sometimes mistaken for a feminine suffix because of the historical term 'suffragette', but in actual fact British newspaper the Daily Mail coined the term in order to belittle the women advocating women's suffrage.

4
  • 2
    There are some uses of '-ess' that don't replace '-er/-or', such as demoness. But they're not common.
    – Barmar
    Jan 31, 2022 at 17:01
  • @Barmar Sure, there's also baron / baroness, but 'baron' is a masculine title. I think there's a strong argument that 'demon' is also masculine. That's getting as much into theology as linguistics - some beliefs may not believe in goddesses as such, but still use masculine terms for god. Same with angels, demons etc. That's not what we're here to discuss - I'd just suggest that any writer / speaker understand their context. Understanding a language is one thing, your subject matter is another.
    – Astralbee
    Feb 1, 2022 at 11:05
  • "Actually, it is the other suffix you mentioned '-ette' that is a diminishing suffix, to make something smaller, and is not a feminine suffix at all." It's used in feminine proper names all the time.
    – nick012000
    Feb 2, 2022 at 12:16
  • 3
    @nick012000 That's right - historically, women have been demeaned by giving them diminishing, belittling names. Names like Claudette, Harriette, Henriette etc are French. They literally mean 'little Claude', 'little Henry'. You might know that the French word for a puppet is 'Marionette' - literally, "little Mary".
    – Astralbee
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:04
4

The fact that English speakers do not generally change the nouns to indicate gender is one of the advantages of the language as compared to German, where "genderizing" is driving a schism into the population.

In English, it is now considered best practice and most respectful of all genders to use the gender neutral designations like "doctor" or "engineer" instead of introducing forms that apply to specific genders.

So the correct term for a female devil is "devil".

4

No, -ess cannot be added to the end of an arbitrary word. (A linguist would say, it’s not a productive suffix.) People can figure out what you mean, but it will sound strange.

With the shift to gender-neutral language in English since the 1970s, and more recently, some people identifying as non-binary and refusing to be called by either masculine or feminine labels, there are practically no new gendered forms being added to English. There’s a fixed set of words that take masculine and feminine forms, and these mostly follow the spelling of whatever language they were borrowed from. Most -ess forms were borrowed from French, centuries ago, and originally spelled -ice.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .