The Gender of Nouns

April 24, 2021 at 11:38 pm (history, jane austen, jasna) (, , , , )


In the conference JANE AUSTEN’s FRENCH CONNECTION, hosted jointly by JASNA Regions New York Metro and New Jersey, over the weekend of April 17 & 18 – one participant brought up the use of the word AUTHOR and AUTHORESS as regards JANE AUSTEN. Specifically, in a letter to James Stanier Clarke, and brother Henry Austen’s “Biographical Sketch.” We must, of course, also consider the dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent.

  • click the BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH link to read Henry’s original, in the 1818 edition of Northanger Abbey (vol. I)

The very TITLE of Henry Austen’s biographical sketch announces to Austen’s readership that he was presenting, for the first time, the “Biographical Sketch of THE AUTHOR” of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The edition, published posthumously, came out in four volumes (two volumes per novel).

  • Austen’s early novel, never published in her lifetime, had been picked up by Crosby & Co. – for which they paid her £10. It languished upon the proverbial shelf. Austen actually repaid the £10, thereby regaining the rights to the publication of her own manuscript. Read more about Northanger Abbey‘s history at JASNA.org.

Like many authors, Austen published anonymously – Sense and Sensibility (1811) appearing as “BY A LADY“; subsequent work appeared as the latest publication “by the Author of Sense and Sensibility” – with successive title pages emphasizing the authorship of the well received Pride and Prejudice.

The brief audience comment during the weekend conference made me think about the “sex” of nouns. Of course in English, (unlike other languages), words have no gender, are “sexless” if I may so term them. No die Welt (the world [feminine] or der Mond [the moon [masculine]) or das Mädchen [which is cheating, for it it “neuter” as opposed to male or female, although it indicates a ‘girl‘ or ‘young woman‘].

What English does have are words like author-authoress; poet-poetess; actor-actress. With the exception of the last, which continues in usage, ARE there many professions that designate a male or female practitioner? I rather wonder if those once in existence, having “fallen out of usage,” sound now so unusual because they were never much IN use?

OR, I wonder, DID they arise by somewhat pejorative?

Take “writer” – no ‘sex’, masculine or feminine, can be attributed to that task.

We have the term “knitter” – which certainly has undergone a change in the sex of those practicing the craft. Yet, despite the predominance of it as a “‘home craft’ among females” nowadays, there exists no “knitteress” or “knittrix” in the English language. One who knits is a knitter.

I go back to German, where it seems (German speakers could tell me if this still holds, in the second decade of the 21st century) MANY nouns had its male/female counterpart: Student / Studentin; Professor / Professorin; Schüler / Schülerin; Arzt / Ärztin; Doktor / Doktorin; Schriftsteller / Schriftstellerin; you get my drift.

English does have holdovers, like Executor / Executrix.

Paintrix comes to mind, but is it a word? Does anyone describe the likes of Freda Kahlo as a “paintress”? I don’t think so…

Photographer.
Cinematographer.
Videographer.

I might give you SALESPERSON, which has definitely evolved from Salesman/Saleswoman.

No one calls a female Singer a Songstress.

Professor.
Teacher.
Construction Worker.
Operator (as in telephone).
Assistant.
Banker; Bank Teller.
Writer.

I will even make a case for the “sex” of the WORD Secretary. Now quite outmoded (in favor of Administrative Assistant), but, once, pretty singularly A MALE occupation, before becoming dominated by FEMALES. And we all know how a profession drops in “prestige” once women enter that workforce. I’m not going down that lane in this post…

I do recognize that British Politics has retained its Private Secretary role; and in the U.S. we still designate office holders, such as the Secretary of War, Secretary of State, etc.

But most, hearing the word SECRETARY, will pull up an image from films… Always efficient; sometimes button-upped and bespectacled. Often QUITE good-looking when she takes off her glasses and lets down her pinned-up hair.

But, let’s get back to JANE AUSTEN.

In the dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent:

In BIG and BOLD lettering, Jane Austen is designated

The Author.

I’ve never thought about the word novelist – did it have a pejorative sense when it was first ‘invented’, in order to denigrate female writers of novels? (Must look that one up.)

***

SEE LETTER 106 (2 Sept 1814) – which has Jane Austen telling Martha Lloyd that she has not forgotten Martha’s Bath Friends, Captain and Mrs. Deans Dundas, for “their particular claim to my Gratitude as an Author.” Le Faye assumes it must reflect a person – ie, Captain Dundas – useful to her naval research, but note Austen’s word THEIR. As unmistakeable as her use of the designation AUTHOR in the same sentence.

HENRY Austen’s letters to/from John Murray – see this blog: http://www.strangegirl.com/emma/letters.php

Ah yes, Stanier Clarke’s letter in which she uses the term “authoress,” dated 11 Dec 1815: “the most unlearned, & unformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.” Surely, Austen is toying with her correspondent. SHE DOES echo Murray’s own phrase “Authoress of Emma” in an 1816 “reply” to Murray she herself pens. BUT: is any tongue-in-cheek joke meant — considering the letter is dated, 1 April (ie, April Fools Day).

*

“He is a Rogue of Course, But a Civil One”

— Jane Austen, referring to John Murray

letter to Cassandra Austen; October 1816

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