WOTD back on track

January 7, 2007

english noun gendering seems incredibly arbitrary. english is generally ungendered except when denoting natural gender, e.g. the gender of the person. yet not all nouns change to denote gender. i’m sure there’s been a lot of good research on the topic, but i hardly have time to read anything non-work related; keeping current with aeronautics trade journals is tough enough. my guess is that a lot of gendering in english comes from foreign loan words, as is the case of today’s word: doyen.

a doyen is, “the senior member of a group or society,” and has a corresponding feminine form, doyenne. both words are derived from the modern french. this is actually the second time that doyen entered the english language from french. the old french doyen entered as, “A leader or commander of ten. Obs,” without a feminine form, which makes sense because there probably weren’t many lady commanders back then. (commaderettes?)

feminine forms are rapidly dropping in modern American and their contemporary usage generally marks the text in some way. Tori Spelling is referred to as “Jewess” by her friend’s parents in the “So NoTORIous” pilot as a source of oh-too-delicious comedy (that was not a joke). This marking tendency is perhaps most notable in the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”:

“One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”

the term “executrix” is both a hilarious segue into Pynchonian madness and a substantive statement about the role of gender. the foreignness of “executrix,” and the casual nature in which it is introduced, highlight its absurdity: one’s first thought on being named an executor, a reminder of the loss of someone important, would hardly be grammatical.

yet at the same time it charts an interesting development in gender roles. Ms. Maas has just returned from a “Tupperware party” where she was disappointed with her “hostess.” Executrix parallels hostess, and serves as the bridge between the “feminine” home and the “male” business world of executors. Within this first sentence, Ms. Maas leaves the world of female domesticity and enters the “man’s” world of hardly honorary duties, still self-consciously aware of her womanhood.

and, by the way, i have no idea why i abandoned my love of post-colonial feminist thought in favor of aeronautical gallantry.

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5 Responses to “WOTD back on track”

  1. crazytownpopulation Says:

    yo, salad! wanted to *plop* down my cents where they weren’t asked for: i might argue that modern english doesn’t often mark gender (or case, for that matter) overtly, but that it’s certainly there syntactically; we’ve lost all that super fun morphology thanx to hipsters like yo-self. and you’re right: pynchon is postively mad.

    nice bloggie you’ve got going here… i’ll be a regular reader. bigups to your baby mamma.

  2. dailysalad Says:

    what can i say, crazytownpopulation, i do my best. i’m really more of an amateur philologist and mercantilist cartographer than i am a linguist. btw, did you know that the hebrew word for linguist (balshan) is derived from the word for detective (balash) and the word for language (lashon) so that, really, a linguist is a language detective.

    and we here at the salad hate hipsters. unless they’re really hot and ironic with square glasses and old sweaters.

  3. lpmandrake Says:

    The glasses would have to be pretty damn square, though.


  4. […] I’ve done that a bunch of times at the Salad, my favorite being my impromptu analysis of the first sentence of The Crying of Lot […]


  5. […] long time ago, I wrote a little bit about English noun gendering, taking a look at the way it can be used for literary effect. Yesterday, whilst reading The Mirror […]


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