Heard on The Judges: "bartend(e)ress"

James A. Landau <JJJRLandau@netscape.com> JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Wed Jan 28 00:56:42 UTC 2009

This past weekend the Screen Actors' Guild gave out its awards, including "Best Female Actor", so we have to assume it is now official.

However, despite people's desire to be hip and the attraction of novel ways of saying things, there is immense conservatism in language.  The word "actress" has been in wide usage for ever; however much you might wish it to go away, it won't.

Another word that will stick around for the same reason is "waitress".

On the other "bartendress" is a new word that hasn't been around long or been in wide circulation.  I predict it will soon vanish into oblivion, to get resurrected every few years and still not catch on.

Why the persistence of "actress" even though cross-gender roles are traditional (as in the move "Shakespeare in Love")?  Because people, of any gender, react differently to a man on stage as opposed to a woman.  Similarly, customers at a restaurant or cocktail lounge have different reactions to a male or a female waitperson.  Unless you are actually at the bar, you don't see the bartender, so the gender of the drink-mixer is of less importance.  Also historically it has been rare for a woman to tend bar, whereas waitresses have been around for a long time.

There is somewhat of a pattern here.  To past generations the sex of the person doing a job was important, hance gender-distinct occupational titles like waitress/waiter.  Nowadays we are much more accustomed to unisex job roles, so we don't have nearly as much a tendency to create words like "waitress".  Hence my prediction that "bartendress" will be forgotten.

However, there are exceptions, such as "bachelorette" where we already have the word "spinster".  But then "spinster" has negative connotations that "bachelorette" does not.

For some reason I have a pet peeve against the word "spokeswoman".  I think it's because whenever I hear a report that someone's "spokeswoman" said x, that I have a suspicion the reporter is trying to be dismissive by insisting on identifying the flack in question as a woman.  Come now, reporters, if you can't use "spokesperson", at least be old-fashioned and refer to a female flack as a "spokesman".

"Aviatrix" has had an unusual history for a gender-specific term.  First it did not come into existence until the 20th Century.  Second, its temporary popularity was due to one G. P. Putnam (grandson of the founder of the publishing house).  Never heard of Mr. Putnam?  Surely you've heard of his wife, Amelia Earhart.  Amelia Earhart Putnam had three public roles:  as an aviator/rix, as a leading feminist, and as a salesman (salesperson?) for Mr. Putnam's business ventures, including a line of luggage for air travelers that is still on the market today.

           James A. Landau
           test engineer
           Northrop-Grumman Information Technology
           8025 Black Horse Pike, Suite 300
           West Atlantic City NJ 08232 USA

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