Gender-specific Noun

Gender-specific Nouns

A gender-specific noun refers to something specifically male or female.

Easy Examples of Gender-specific Nouns

Nouns referring to females:
  • queen, vixen (female fox), bitch (female dog), sow (female pig)
  • (The grammatical gender of these nouns is feminine.)
Nouns referring to males:
  • king, uncle, drake (male duck), wether (a castrated male sheep or goat)
  • (The grammatical gender of these nouns is masculine.)
The following are not gender-specific nouns:
  • soldier, shark, lawyer, person
  • (Without further context, these are gender-neutral nouns.)

Real-Life Examples of Gender-specific Nouns

In English, the gender of a noun determines the pronouns we use with it (e.g., he, she, it) and the possessive adjectives (e.g., his, her, its). In each of the following examples, the gender-specific noun is underlined and the related pronoun or possessive adjective is in bold.
  • My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. (Actor Jim Carrey)
  • I haven't spoken to my wife in years. I didn't want to interrupt her. (Comedian Rodney Dangerfield)
There is more on this topic in the entry on gender.

Why Should I Care about Gender-specific Nouns?

Mistakes involving gender-specific nouns are rare. However, the following two issues are worthy of note.

(Issue 1) Using the word actress

Using the gender-specific noun actress is a considered sexist by some, most probably because the noun actor has always been a gender-neutral term meaning a person who acts. Some feel the word actress, which emerged long after actor, is not needed and only serves to engender gender inequality. (After all, there are no female versions of nouns like doctor, politician, pilot, and beggar, so it's a fair point.) As a result of increasing public awareness on gender equality, the gender-neutral usage of actor is becoming more popular in modern English as people strive not to offend.

(Issue 2) Using the word chairman

Not everyone treats the noun chairman as a gender-specific noun, and it is regularly used for men and women. However, quite understandably, many consider it as masculine noun, and when the appointed person is female, they opt for chairwoman (a term that has been in use since at least the 17th century). So, some will think chairman is just for men, and some won't. This issue is often avoided by using the gender-neutral term chairperson or chair.
  • Don't call me chairman because I'm a woman. Don't call me chairwoman because my sex is irrelevant. Don't call me chairperson because that term is trying too hard not to be sexist. Call me the chair.
  • (This captures the issue. If you're unsure, use chair.)
The fire and rescue services avoided the same issue with fireman by introducing firefighter. The Royal Mail has kept the distinction, using postman and postwoman, but, informally, will use the gender-neutral postie.

In truth, it's become bit of minefield. Some might view your use of the -man version as sexist while others might view your avoidance of the -man version as sexist. This old joke plays on the dilemma:
  • What do you call a blonde girl who flies a plane?
  • A pilot.
  • (It's sexist because it's not sexist.)

Key Points

  • Be mindful that actor refers to a males and females who act, and some believe actress creates an unnecessary distinction between men and women.
  • If you're unsure whether to use chairman or chairwomen, use chair. (Chairperson is bit contrived.)
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