Women’s Suffixes

Making some nouns more feminine

If you die in some states and your son is appointed to handle your estate, he is the “executor.” If it’s your daughter, she is the “executrix.” In other states, both would be “executors.” Those states, it seems, don’t care about the sex of the person handling the estate. But the English language does.

“Trix,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary says, is the “suffix forming feminine nouns of agency.” The masculine suffix is “or.” Thus, “executor/executrix.”

WNW does not list many feminine “nouns of agency,” defined as “a person or thing that (does a specified thing),” with the “-trix” suffix. Among those it does list are “administratrix,” “aviatrix,” “directrix,” “dominatrix,” “executrix,” and “testatrix.”

You may have heard Amelia Earhart referred to as an “aviatrix,” and you most certainly have heard of a “dominatrix,” but chances are you haven’t heard many of those others used, in casual conversation or otherwise.

And let us stipulate, if you’ll pardon the legalese, that you probably haven’t heard “executrix” or “administratrix” used anywhere but in a legal document, or in stories about legal documents like wills.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the “-trix” suffix to the 15th century, from medieval Latin.

It’s sometimes useful to have a feminine version of a noun, since English overall is gender-neutral, unlike many other languages, where each noun has a gender or masculine and feminine forms. In a will, for example, it might be helpful to call someone who has a gender-neutral first name like “Pat” the “executrix” to specify that Pat is a woman. But it certainly sounds odd. Especially these days, when “dominatrix” is the most common use of the “-trix” suffix.

Even so, English does not have a dearth of ways to let you know whether a man or woman is the subject. Some, like “fiancé/fiancée” and “comedian/comedienne,” are adopted directly from other languages. A few others, like “directrice,” use an alternate spelling of “-trix.” (Not all words ending in these suffixes are “nouns of agency,” though.)

But by far the most common feminine suffix in English is “-tress.” We have “actress,” “waitress,” “benefactress,” “mistress,” and “seductress” (see: “dominatrix”), among others.

But these are postfeminist times in many ways, and many people are jettisoning the feminine suffixes entirely, as do those states with only “executors.” Many women who play roles for a living refer to themselves simply as “actors,” giving “actress” an Off Off Broadway feel. Similarly, women who tell jokes often call themselves “comedians” instead of “comediennes,” though it’s hard to tell if they say it aloud. And, as we’ve written before, “waitress” is being replaced by “server” or “wait staff,” taking the gender politics out for good, except maybe at the corner diner.

In the end, it’s not about sex at all. As a wise editor used to say, “Nouns have gender. People, bless their hearts, have sex.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,