The Grammarphobia Blog

Is she an “actor” or an “actress”?

Q: You said on the air that the word “actor” should be used for both men and women. I disagree. The word “actress” is in widespread use—including, of course, annually at the Oscars (audience: one billion?). “Poetess” and “Jewess” are not widely used; my hypothesis is that they both add a syllable, whereas “actress” has the same number of syllables as “actor.” Americans always want to say it faster—and saving even one syllable counts! What’s wrong with using “actress” for a woman?

A: All the “actresses” I know refer to themselves as “actors,” despite the Oscars. Of course, I can understand why the Academy Awards people use the term “actress”—it gives them a chance to differentiate the women’s Oscars from the men’s. Besides, this doubles the number of actors that are honored! Imagine the howl from the acting community if the Academy decided to be nonsexist and simply designate a “best actor in a leading role” and “best actor in a supporting role,” without reference to sex!

We seem to be getting away from “ess” and “ix” endings to differentiate women from men. We no longer use “aviatrix,” “executrix,” “stewardess,” and so on. This tendency may have something to do with linguistic simplification. Languages have a tendency to simplify and drop syllables or letters. In this case, though, the advent of the women’s movement has certainly speeded up the process.