The Grammarphobia Blog

A saboteuse? A chanteur?

Q: Some English words of foreign origin are gender specific, such as “executor”/“executrix,” “masseur”/“masseuse.” I’m wondering about two French words: Do we have “saboteuse” and “chanteur” in English?

A: Yes, “saboteuse” and “chanteur” are words in English, though they’re rarely used and barely register in dictionaries.

Of the eight standard English dictionaries we examined, none include “saboteuse” and only one has “chanteur.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, mentions “saboteuse” but not “chanteur.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a unisex definition of “chanteur” as a “singer,” especially “a singer of ballads.”

In a separate entry, it defines “chanteuse” as “a woman who is a singer,” especially “a woman who sings in concert halls or nightclubs.”

M-W has a unisex definition for “saboteur” as “one that engages in sabotage,” but it doesn’t mention “saboteuse,” either within its “saboteur” entry or in a separate entry.

The OED, though, defines “saboteur” as “one who commits sabotage,” and adds: “Also fem. saboteuse.”

Among the citations in its “saboteur” entry is this one from The Glimpses of the Moon, a 1977 mystery by the English crime writer Edmund Crispin, a pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery:

“ ‘My God, it’s the pigs,’ said the hunt saboteuse disgustedly.” (The saboteuse here is a woman trying to stop a fox hunt.)

As we’ve said, Oxford doesn’t include the English word “chanteur,” though the French Faucon chanteur occurs in a citation for the “chanting falcon” (also called the “chanting goshawk”).

While “chanteur” and “saboteuse” don’t show up often in English writing, they do occur occasionally, according to our searches of Newsbank and other databases.

Here’s an example from the April 15, 2016, issue of the Denver Post: “Perhaps no artist’s passing has hit as hard—or inspired more tributes—than that of British chanteur David Bowie.”

And this one is from a Sept. 7, 2015, item on Mashable.com: “In many ways, honey-voiced chanteur Sam Smith is the male answer to Adele.”

Another example comes from a gossip column in the July 23, 2014, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“According to no less an authority than the Library of Congress, pop chanteur Billy Joel, 65, has made a primo contribution to American culture.”

As for “saboteuse,” a review of The Florence King Reader in the April 2, 1994, issue of the Roanoke (VA) Times describes the novelist, essayist and columnist as “an equal-opportunity saboteuse” for poking fun at both men and women.

A July 16, 2014, article on the blog of the Spectator calls the British MP Harriet Harman the “Labour Party’s chief saboteuse” for accusing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of sexism.

And in Musical Comedy in America, a 2013 book by Cecil A. Smith and Glenn Litton, the Nanette Fabray character in Arms and the Girl, a play set in Colonial America, is described as “a would-be saboteuse.”

In our searches, “saboteuse” is often used mockingly, as in the fox-hunting and Labor Party examples above.

And “chanteur” often accompanies the name of a male French singer in English writing, as in a Dec. 10, 2010, movie review in the New York Times that refers to “the mystery man played by the French chanteur Johnny Hallyday.”

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