April: Agent Nouns

             Agent Noun: ‘a noun (in English typically one ending in -er or -or) denoting someone or something that performs the action of
             a verb, as workeraccelerator, etc.’

(Oxford English Dictionary)

 Fast speech like bumble bee flight is impossible. Bumble bees cannot fly because of their body shape and wing size. Fast speech is impossible because we need to link thoughts to sounds faster that our neurons permit. Nonetheless, bumble bees fly very well, and we talk quickly.

 Bumble-bee flight needs to be explained by scientists, and Joseph Calamia makes a start on what he calls ‘the physics-defying flight of the bumblebee’. Fast speech needs to be explained by linguists, and Sonja Kotz and Michael Schwartze tell us that speaking involves a hundred muscles ‘in the respiratory, laryngeal, and oral motor systems’. Those muscles have milliseconds in which to do their job.

 Some explanation is provided by the notion of muscle memory. Our brains can speed things up by automating actions. For repeatedly repeated actions, muscle memory replaces thinking. There is more to fast speech than that, but much of speaking is something we do automatically.

 Automatic speech can lead to some disturbing phenomena, one of which is demonstrated by our speech practices around agent nouns. Those are the nouns that denote people and objects that perform actions. Speaker, printer and runner denote both people and objects that speak, print and run. So far so good, but a speaker can be either a woman or a man, so can a printer, so can a runner.

 When we hear or read the words printer and speaker and runner, do we think of a woman or a man? The word allows us to think of either, but, in practice, we may find ourselves thinking of a man. To say that we are thinking may not be accurate. We may be engaging one of the short cuts of fast speech since we have to decode what we hear as fast as speakers encode what they say.

 On 17 March 2018, a headline on the front page of The New York Times read: ‘Draw a Leader. What’s She Like? Trick Question?’ Heather Murphy, the author of the piece, calls it a trick question because she says: ‘Asked to draw an effective leader, most people will draw a man.’ Murphy cites a mass of supporting material collected by Dr Tina Kiefer of the University of Warwick. Dr Elizabeth Mclean of Arizona’s Eller College says we think man because ‘People have these prototypes in their head about what a leader looks like.’  The leader-man prototype makes it difficult for women to be seen as leaders.

 McClean’s prototypes produce what are more commonly called stereotypes, and it may be that we draw in our heads the stereotype of a man not just for leader but for speaker, printer and runner too. And so perhaps also for director, employer, teacher, debtor, performer, commuter? Some of the stereotypes are stronger than others. Teacher might draw a woman, and commuter might draw equally a man or a woman.

 Muscle memory is not the only force stereotyping agent nouns.  Our language encodes a hierarchy that puts men before women though the English language is not unusual in that regard. All Indo-European languages do the same, and maybe all languages do. The fact that the ‘natural’ order of the phrase ‘men and women’ puts men first points to the way in which our language leads us to think. Adam and Eve set the pattern, and it takes an effort to say ‘Eve and Adam’. Adam and Eve are not agent nouns, but they set the order that is shown in the list: waiter/waitress; actor/actress; steward/stewardess; host/hostess; poet/poetess; abbot/abbess; adulterer/adulteress; mayor/mayoress; ambassador/ambassadress; author/authoress; baron/baroness; duke/duchess.

 With each pairing, the agent first thought as performing the action is a man. The woman comes as a second thought. She is an add-on, an add-on created by the suffix -ess. Modern usage is struggling to reduce that bias. Poet and author are now as likely to mean a woman as a man - actor, too, but Oscars are still given to people called ‘Best Actress’ even though the Academy is trying to equalize its treatment of women and men.  Language has a conservative tendency, and the more language becomes ritualised, the harder it is to change. The preservation of Sanskrit and Latin as sacred languages shows an extreme of conservation.  

 Actress still has some currency, but poetess and authoress are obsolete - people using those terms mark themselves as prejudiced. Waiter and steward have not yet become gender neutral. At the same time, waitress and stewardess are under linguistic pressure. Waitperson finds some favour though it is not widespread; flight attendant skirts the gender issue, and men are still likely to be called stewards in airplane announcements.

 In addition to -ess, the English language has a number of feminine suffixes: -ette; -euse; -ine; -trix; -woman. All of them give woman a second place, make her an afterthought. Some like -ette actually demean. As well as being used to create usherette from usher, bachelorette from bachelor, and starlette from star, -ette is commonly used as a diminutive suggesting something inferior: maisonette, kitchenette, novelette.

 Suffragette was a word invented by the Daily Mail in 1903 to mock the Pankhursts and their Women’s Social and Political Union. The Pankhursts rejected the peaceful methods of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The peaceable members of the National Union were called suffragists, a neutral term and one that included men as well as women.  Suffragette was a term of abuse and one that did not include men. The Pankhurst women embraced it. By making it a term of honour, they mocked the Daily Mail.

 The suffix -ine turns hero into heroine and is not used much else. The French suffix -euse is used on agent nouns taken from French as -trix is used on agent nouns taken from Latin. -trix has an undertow of amusement if not downright contempt in words like administratrix, aviatrix, dominatrix, directrix, executrix.

 -ette -euse and -trix are on their way out of the English language. The suffix -woman by contrast is making inroads. It is old enough in words like countrywoman and washerwoman, but, since the 1970s, it has been increasingly used to correct or replace words like anchorman, businessman, chairman, journeyman, policeman, salesman, yachtsman. For many speakers, the suffix -man seems unnecessarily emphatic even when the agent in question is a man. Nonetheless, there are times when muscle memory takes over. Policeman and chairman are especially liable to jump to the lips.

 Chairman still causes stutters. It has produced a fuller range of options than most agent nouns, and we now have on offer chairman, madam chairman, chairwoman, chairperson and chair. Chair attracts favour. Some people object to calling a person a thing, but language regularly makes that kind of shift. People talk about the chairman of the board without expecting any one to object to a group of people being called a board, the Old English name for a table. There is a name for what language is doing with chair and board in these instances. They are examples of metonymy: ‘a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept’.

 No one appears to have matched chair with chairess, but we have mayor and mayoress. Mayoress can mean either ‘the wife of a mayor’ or ‘a woman holding the office of mayor’.  In the United Kingdom, the wife of a mayor can be called the Lady Mayoress and a mayor in her own right the Lady Mayor.  In the United States, a mayor in her own right is to be addressed as Madam Mayor, just as a former Secretary of State could be called Madam Secretary, although Secretary Clinton sufficed. Would she have been Madam President? The Emily Post Institute tells us that, had she been elected, the salutation should have been: ‘Dear Madam President’. On the envelope, the formula would have been ‘The President, The White House’. In person, she would have been called ‘Ma’am’. Use of that information will have to be reserved for some later date.

 Whether we say chairman or madam chairman, mayor or madam mayor, the English language presumes that the agent is, in the first case, a man. There are two notable exceptions: bride/bridegroom and widow/widower. However, these pairs presume that women are wives not leaders. Our language predisposes us to prototypes boldly drawn for generations. If we want a gender-neutral English, we may need to talk slowly for a long time to come.

 Perhaps change is coming. On 17 March 2018, The New York Times reported responses to the word ‘leader’. Four days later, The Washington Post reported responses to the word ‘scientist’. In the 1960s and 70s, of 5,000 children asked to draw a scientist, only twenty-eight drew a woman.  The twenty-eight were all girls. Not one boy drew a woman scientist. Recently asked to draw a picture of a scientist, 21,000 children produced very many pictures of women. Among younger children, most girls drew women and most boys drew men. However, the older they got, the more likely girls were to draw men.


Calamia, Joseph. ‘The Physics-Defying Flight of the Bumblebee.’ Live Science (25 February 2011): www.livescience.com.

Emily Post Institute. ‘US Government.’ Official Forms of Address.  emilypost.com/advice.

Guarino, Ben. ‘More than before, children asked to draw a scientist will draw a woman.’ Washington Post (21 March 2018): A3.

Kotz Sonja A., and Michael Schwartze. ‘Motor-Timing and Sequencing in Speech Production.’ Eds Greg Hickok and Steve Small. Neurobiology of Language. New York: Academic Press, 2016. Pages 717–724.

Murphy, Heather. ‘Draw a Leader. What’s She Like? Trick Question?’ New York Times (17 March 2018):  A1.

Potter, Liz. ‘Suffragette or Suffragist.’ Macmillan Dictionary Blog (6 February 2018): www.macmillandictionaryblog.com.


For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language

visit: https://twitter.com/theenglishproj


The English Project’s May Posting: First Names and Family Names. Many first names reflect virtues wished upon the baby: be strong, be beautiful, be rose-like, be handsome. Two sets of virtues? Two kinds of babies? Naming can be powerful. First names tell stores and so do last names.