The Grammarphobia Blog

Noun sequitur

Q: I couldn’t get through to you on WNYC – I was on hold at the end! I had a question about the propriety of describing a retired female college teacher as a “professor emerita.” In Latin, professor is a masculine noun. If one uses a Latin phrase, shouldn’t the grammatical gender agree: i.e., professor emeritus?

A: I’m sorry you were on hold and couldn’t get through to me on the Leonard Lopate Show. As for your question, there are two points of view here.

(1) This is the argument in favor of “professor emerita” for females:

“Professor,” while once a masculine noun in Latin, is now a bona fide English word, and is therefore neuter. It’s legitimate, therefore, to add case endings that indicate the sex and number of the professor(s) we’re talking about (“emeritus,” “emerita,” “emeriti,” “emeritae”).

(2) This is the argument against it, one that I tend to agree with:

You’re correct – the word professor is masculine in Latin, and case endings in Latin have to do with grammatical gender, not biological gender (sex, that is).

In Latin, therefore, professor takes the masculine adjective emeritus, whether a man or a woman is meant. The English phrase “professor emerita” confuses sex with grammatical gender.

Besides, if we’ve adopted “professor” as a neutral English noun, why not adopt “emeritus” as the corresponding neutral English adjective (plural “emeriti”)?

It makes sense, according to this argument, to use “professor emeritus” in English for both male and female professors, but it’s probably not going to happen, at least not in my lifetime.

Academic conventions don’t change overnight. Witness “alumnus,” “alumna,” “alumni,” and “alumnae” – two too many forms, if you ask me. (I once wrote a blog item about all those “alums.”)

Well, what do you expect from people who march around in caps and gowns to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”?

For the rest of us, Latin and other foreign words take on a life of their own once they enter English. If you’re up for more, I’ve written several blog items about the Anglicization of foreign plurals: “appendices,” “graffiti,” and “media.”

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