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When we have a specifically feminine version of a noun which ends with the -ess suffix, like in huntress, sorceress, anchoress, etc. Is it always wrong to use, like, hunter for a female hunter too or sorcerer for a female sorcerer too and so on?

Does it always work like in the emperor and empress case, where the gender is somehow clearly distinct (at least for me) ?

  • I was not sure if it was more proper to post it on English Language & Usage, but since I'm no native speaker, I thought it would better fit here. – Pedro Vernetti Apr 16 '16 at 9:32
  • Both ELU and ELL want you to do your own research before asking a question and show us what you found. What did you find through your own research? – user24743 Apr 16 '16 at 10:11
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    Because of women's liberation, English is slowly doing away with feminine versions of this kind of word. People still use empress and countess, but many people today would be insulted if you called them a authoress or a huntress. And stewardess is being replaced by flight attendant. – Peter Shor Apr 16 '16 at 10:17
  • @PeterShor - It seems like 30 years ago, people were more careful about making the distinction between actor and actress; nowadays, I notice actor increasingly applied to both men and women in the acting profession. (I don't have any hard data to support that – aside from maybe this ngram – but that's my perception). – J.R. Apr 16 '16 at 10:32
  • Actress has been much discussed. See, for example this. – Colin Fine Apr 16 '16 at 18:28
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Grammar

I think the usage of these female nouns may be idiomatic. Idiomatic means that there is no firm grammar rule and you have to learn each one on a case-by-case basis.

Examples

  • huntress - "hunter" for male, "hunter" for female. The word "huntress" may exist in the dictionary, but I've never heard it used.
  • sorceress - "sorcerer" for male, "sorceress" for female.
  • anchoress - I do not know what an anchoress is. This must be a very rare word.
  • empress - "emperor" for male, "empress" for female

http://wordinfo.info/unit/4432/s:a%20suffix%20that%20forms%20nouns%20meaning%20a%20female

  • lioness - "lion" for male, "lion" or "lioness" for female
  • tigress - "tiger" for male, "tiger" for female. The word "tigress" may exist in the dictionary, but I've never heard it used.
  • heiress - "heir" for male, "heir" or "heiress" for female
  • hostess - "host" for male, "hostess" for female
  • sculptress - "sculptor" for male, "sculptor" for female. The word "sculptress" may exist in the dictionary, but I've never heard it used
  • actress - "actor" for male, "actress" for female

I think that whether or not the female -ess noun is used just depends on whether or not native speakers use that word frequently in the language. If they don't, then they use the male noun for both genders.

  • I'm assuming that an "anchoress" would be a female news anchor. – J.R. Apr 16 '16 at 21:16
  • Supposedly,"anchoress" is a female "anchorite" – Pedro Vernetti Apr 16 '16 at 22:33

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