English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Can a man be a hostess?

Q: I’ve been to several restaurants that have “Hostess Stand” signs, though I’ve noticed that sometimes the “hostess” turns out to be a man. I’ve always thought that “hostess” only applied to women, and that when you’re unsure of the gender you should use “host.” Have times changed?

A: “Hostess” is not an appropriate job title for a man, and we’d be very surprised if restaurants are extending the meaning of the word. No matter what those signs say, we’d bet that those men are called “hosts.”

The standard dictionaries that we use the most say a “hostess” is always a woman.

For example, every definition of “hostess” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) begins with either “a woman” or “a female employee.”

When the noun “hostess” entered English around the year 1290, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a “woman who keeps a public place of lodging and entertainment; the mistress of an inn.”  

The OED says the noun “host,” which entered English around the same time, referred to, among other things, a “man who lodges and entertains for payment; a man who keeps a public place of lodging or entertainment; the landlord of an inn.”

In modern usage, however, “host” is unisex and can serve for either male or female.

Here are the relevant definitions of “host” in American Heritage:

(1) “One who receives or entertains guests in a social or official capacity.” (2) “A person who manages an inn or hotel.” (3) “One that furnishes facilities and resources for a function or event: the city chosen as host for the Olympic Games.” (4) “The emcee or interviewer on a radio or television program.”

The OED, however, still defines “host” as “a man who lodges and entertains” people, either as guests or for payment. But Oxford is obviously behind the times here; a note says, “This entry has not yet been fully updated.”

It’s probable that when the OED eventually updates its definitions for “host,” the term will apply to both sexes as well as host cities, organizations, and so on.

We can’t tell you exactly when “host” became a gender-neutral term. But our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition), defines it in a unisex way (“one who …”).

Many people seem to assume that if a feminine version of a noun exists, then the original can’t apply to women.

In this respect, “host” is similar to the “master” in “master of ceremonies,” which we’ve written about before on the blog.

Just as we aren’t compelled to use “hostess” in referring to a woman, there’s no law that says we must use “mistress of ceremonies,” though many people do.

Similarly, the terms “actor” and “comedian” are gender-neutral and appropriate for both men and women, as we discussed in a post a few years ago.

We aren’t saying that feminine titles like “hostess,” “mistress,” “actress,” and “comedienne” should be relegated to the junk heap. Sometimes they seem more appropriate than their neutral counterparts. And if a woman prefers a feminine title, then by all means she should have it.

But certainly feminine titles shouldn’t be extended to men. In fact, restaurants would do well to get rid of those “Hostess Stand” signs. Why name the furniture, anyway?

A simple sign reading “Host,” would be quite enough, posted on the desk or stand or station or whatever. And it wouldn’t have to be changed when a man takes over the job.

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