The out-of-date female -ess

Stewardess cigarettes, via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays we tend to wince when we hear words like authoress, giantess, or sculptress. Even though they still hang around, female-specific words like actress and stewardess now seem PI (politically incorrect) or just downright sexist, and they’re fast going out of style. I mean, when was the last time you heard anyone introducing themselves as an editress? (Yes, that’s a word.) Especially as the notion of gender binarism itself is being challenged and eroded, along with its 2- and 3-letter pronouns, we’re moving steadily away from gender-specific vocabulary in our language. But what might surprise you is how many of these passé nouns still appear in modern and respectable dictionaries without a note or even a hint of how anachronistic (and dare I say misogynistic) these words now sound in the 21st century. For example, there’s a word* listed in the Oxford English Dictionary online with the definition “a woman addicted to or guilty of fornication”; it ends in ‘-ess’, and there’s no “rare”, “obsolete” or “archaic” note in sight to consign it to the rubbish-bin of linguistic history. Below is a list of specifically female nouns currently listed in the OED, along with their definitions and usage notes where applicable. I’ve italicized all those that have “a female xxx” as their definition. Try not to wince at the words themselves, their definitions, or when you look for that usage note and it simply isn’t there …
Actress: a female actor (now rare)
Adulteress: a woman who commits adultery; a female adulterer (now often replaced by the more gender-neutral adulterer except in literary, historical, or religious contexts)
Adventuress: a female adventurer
Ancestress: a female ancestor; a woman from whom one is descended
Archduchess: the wife or widow of an archduke (historical)
Assassinatress: a female assassin (rare)
Authoress: a female author (the gender-neutral author is now often preferred)
Baroness: The wife or widow of a baron; a woman holding the rank of baron either as a life peerage or as a hereditary rank
Canoness: a member of certain religious orders of women living communally according to an ecclesiastical rule in the same way as nuns
Cateress: a female caterer (Merriam-Webster)
Countess: The wife or widow of a count or earl; a woman holding the rank of count or earl in her own right
Conductress: a female conductor, leader, or guide
Cousiness: a female cousin; a kinswoman (obsolete)
Deaconess: a woman with duties similar to those of a deacon
Demoness: a female demon; (in extended use) a cruel or wicked woman
Druidess: a female Druid; a Druidic prophetess
Duchess: The wife or widow of a duke; a woman holding a rank equivalent to duke in her own right
Editress: a female editor
Editrix: a female editor; editress
Empress: a female emperor, esp. one who inherits the position by right of birth; the wife or widow of an emperor
Enchantress:  a female enchanter; a woman who uses magic or sorcery, especially to put someone or something under a spell; a very attractive and beguiling woman
Demigoddess: a female demigod (rare)
*Fornicatress: a woman addicted to or guilty of fornication
Giantess: a she-giant; a woman of abnormal bulk and height
Goddess: a female god, esp. in any of various polytheistic systems of belief (freq. as the second element in appositive compounds, as angel, bitch-, fish-goddess, etc., or in compounds of which the first element indicates the sphere of activity or patronage, as earth, moon, rain, sea-goddess, etc.)
Governess: a woman responsible for the care, supervision, or direction of a person, typically a child or young lady; a nurse; a guardian; a chaperone (hist. in later use)
Greengroceress: a female greengrocer
Heiress (and coheiress: a female heir; a woman who is legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death; a woman inheriting and continuing the legacy of a predecessor
Hostess: a woman who receives or entertains guests; a woman employed at a restaurant to welcome and seat customers (U.S.); a woman employed to entertain customers at a nightclub, bar, or dance hall; a stewardess on an aircraft, train, etc; a woman who introduces a television or radio program
Huntress: a woman who hunts; a female hunter
Inventress: a female inventor (rare)
Leopardess: a female leopard
Lioness: a female lion
Mayoress: a woman holding mayoral office; a female mayor (orig. U.S.; not in official use in England and Wales and certain other countries)
Mistress: a woman in a position of authority or control; a female schoolteacher who teaches a particular subject (British); a woman who is skilled in a particular subject or activity; the female owner of a dog, cat, or other domesticated animal; a female head of a household (archaic); a female employer of domestic staff; a woman (other than the man’s wife) having a sexual relationship with a married man
Murderess: a female murderer
Ogress: a female ogre; (in extended use) a cruel or terrifying woman
Oratress: a female public speaker (the non-gender-specific term orator is now generally preferred)
Patroness: a woman who is a sponsor or supporter of a person, cause, institution, activity, etc.; a female patron
Peeress: the wife or widow of a peer. In later use also (more fully peeress in her own right): a woman holding the rank of a peer by creation or descent. (Peeresses in their own right have been entitled to sit in Parliament only since the Peerage Act of 1963; peeresses by marriage are not so entitled.)
Poetess: a female poet; a woman who composes poetry. (The gender-neutral poet is now often preferred)
Portress: a female porter; a woman who acts as porter or doorkeeper, especially in a nunnery
Priestess: a female priest; a woman who holds the position and performs the functions of a priest
Prioress: a superior nun holding a position subordinate to an abbess, similar to a claustral prior.
Prophetess: a woman who prophesies, a female prophet; a woman who foretells the future, or claims to do so; a sibyl
Pythoness: a woman believed to be possessed by a spirit and to be able to forsee the future; a female soothsayer; a witch
Revengeress: a female revenger (rare after 17th cent.)
Sculptress: a female sculptor; a female artist who makes sculptures
Seamstress: a woman who seams or sews; a needlewoman whose occupation is plain sewing as distinguished from dress or mantle-making, decorative embroidery, etc.
Seductress: a female seducer
Songstress: a female singer; a poetess
Sorceress: a female sorcerer; a witch
Stewardess: a female attendant on a passenger aircraft who attends to the needs and comfort of the passengers; = air hostess; also, a similar attendant on other kinds of passenger transport
Temptress: a female tempter
Tigress: a female tiger
Titaness: a female Titan; a giantess
Traitress/traitoress: a female traitor; a traitorous or treacherous woman (or being personified as a woman). (Sometimes in an attenuated or playful sense.)
Tutoress: a female tutor; a governess
Victress: a female victor or vanquisher
Villainess: a female villain. (Common in recent use.)
Viscountess: the wife of a viscount; a peeress of the fourth order of nobility
Votaress/votress: a female votary
Waitress: a woman who waits upon the guests at a hotel, restaurant, etc. Also one hired for a similar purpose on special occasions to supplement the staff of a private household
Wardress: a female warder in a prison

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Incidentally, isn’t it strange that the following three nouns ending in “-ess” all refer to males (or to males and females): HighnessHoliness, marquess? Go figure.

4 thoughts on “The out-of-date female -ess

  1. Kat

    Great blog. I’d love to see an article about words that end in x like edtrix. This is like the new Latinx, where the X signifies a gender-neutral postfix.

    Reply
  2. Nicolas Doucet

    It is somewhat surprising to me that English would consider this politically incorrect usage, as the exact opposite is true in other languages! In Quebec (and the rest of French Canada), if you don’t feminize usage (docteure, auteure, professeure, chercheure, etc.), you are using French in a sexist fashion. In fact, this is an easy way to recognize a French text written on the old continent (the French almost never do this).

    Here is the official policy of the Government of Quebec on the matter:

    “L’emploi du féminin n’est pas obligatoire en ce sens que l’omission des noms féminins ne constitue pas une erreur de vocabulaire ou de grammaire. Par contre, leur emploi est souhaité et encouragé si l’on veut rendre visible la présence des femmes dans les textes, et par là même, leur place dans la société.” (http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=4015)

    Quebec does, however, recognize that this particular usage is not universally employed by the French international community:

    http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=5158

    The French almost never feminize their profession names, which always sounded really weird to me. They will say things like “Madame le maire” instead of “Madame la mairesse”. But then again, the French never accentuate their capital letters either, which is even weirder… 😉 Just like the small differences in writing and pronunciation between English from the UK and North America (or Spanish from Spain and Latin America), we also have our little France-Quebec arguments regarding how things should be pronounced or written. 🙂

    This is quite an interesting perspective of gender usage perception between different populations and languages. One needs to be careful not to judge how other countries or populations might perceive and employ these feminine words.

    Reply
    1. Louise Post author

      Hi Nicolas,

      These are fascinating observations: thank you! It hadn’t really occurred to me that the perception of these gender-specific labels and identities might be different in other languages and cultures. Although now that I think about it, there is a certain logic in the argument that giving women their own titles or labels is actually the opposite of sexist. (I was also going to look at the old-fashioned use of “lady-” as a prefix: e.g. “lady housekeeper”, “lady-nurse” etc., but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much.)

      Thanks again for bringing these very interesting points and observations to our attention. And thank you for visiting Glosso.

      Louise

      Reply

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