The Grammarphobia Blog

And all the men and women merely players

Q: You should stop encouraging genderless appellations. Carol Channing is a “comedienne,” not a “comedian.” And Meryl Streep is an “actress,” not an “actor.” Do you want to call the “Duchess of Devonshire” the “Duke of Devonshire”? What about “executrix”? Or “dominatrix,” for that matter? Too much is lost!

A: I don’t think there’s much chance we’ll lose the term “dominatrix”! And, personally, I think that one would be a real loss.

But as I’ve said before on the blog, I do feel that a woman who acts has a right to call herself an “actor” if she wants. In fact, the word “actor” was initially used for both sexes, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s a unisex “actor” from a Dec. 27, 1666, entry in Pepys’s Diary: “Doll Common doing Abigail most excellently, & Knipp the widow very well, & will be an excellent actor, I think.”

The same is true for “comedian.” It was unisex for hundreds of years until “comedienne” made its debut (initially with a French accent) in the mid-19th century.

Here’s a unisex “comedian” from Daniel Defoe’s last novel, Roxana (1724): “Why, says I to her, … your Lady was some French Comedian, that is to say, a Stage Amazon.”

I, for one, prefer to think of myself as an author, not an authoress, though I concede that female writers have been referred to as “authoresses” (originally “aucteuresses”) since the 15th century.

Why tack on an unnecessary “ess” ending? “All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare tells us, “And all the men and women merely players.”

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