The Grammarphobia Blog

Stewardess and other -ess words

Q: How did English, a fundamentally nongendered language, get the word “stewardess,” a gendered term that’s now being replaced in our gender-sensitive era by the unisex “flight attendant”? What’s wrong with using “steward” for both sexes?

A: We’ll have more to say later about the old practice of adding “-ess” to nouns to feminize them. As we’ve written before on the blog, the current trend is in the other direction.

Modern English tends to favor the original, gender-free nouns for occupations—words like “mayor,” “author,” “sculptor,” and “poet” in place of “mayoress,” “authoress,” “sculptress,” “poetess,” and so on.

But first let’s look at “stewardess,” which is probably a much older word than you think.

It first appeared in writing in 1631 to mean a female steward (that is, a caretaker of some kind), and it was used for hundreds of years in caretaking, managerial, or administrative senses.

Only in later use did “stewardess” come to mean a female attendant on a ship (a sense first recorded in 1834), a train (1855), or a plane (1930).

“Stewardess” was of course derived from the gender-free noun “steward,” which is very old.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates written evidence of “steward” (stigweard in Old English) back to 955 or earlier, and notes that it was created within English, not derived from other sources.

“The first element is most probably Old English stig,” which means “a house or some part of a house,” Oxford says, noting that the Old English stigwita meant “house-dweller.”

In its earliest uses, the word meant someone who manages the domestic affairs of a household, and it later took on more official and administrative meanings in business, government, and the church.

The femininized “stewardess,” defined in the OED as “a female who performs the duties of a steward,” was first recorded in The Spanish Bawd, James Mabbe’s 1631 translation of a “tragicke-comedy” by Fernando de Rojas:

“O variable fortune … thou Ministresse and high Stewardesse of all temporal happinesse.”

We might be tempted to attribute that example to rhyme alone. But we found two more appearances of “stewardesse” in a religious work that was probably written in 1631 or earlier and was published in 1632.

These come from Henry Hawkins’s biography of a saint, The History of S. Elizabeth Daughter of the King of Hungary. Because Elizabeth gave her fortune to the poor, the author refers to her as God’s “trusty Stewardesse &; faithfull Dispensatress of his goods” and “this incomparable Stewardesse of Christ.”

Until the early 19th century, “stewardess” continued to be used in the various ways “steward” was used for a man. For example, the OED cites an 1827 usage by Thomas Carlyle in German Romance: “She was his … Castle-Stewardess.” (The book is an anthology of German romances, and the example is from an explanatory footnote by Carlyle.)

But as the old uses of “stewardess” died away, a new one developed. People began using “stewardess” in the 1830s to mean (like “steward” before it) a woman working aboard a ship.

The OED defines this use of “stewardess” as “a female attendant on a ship whose duty it is to wait on the women passengers.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1834 news article about a shipwreck that left only six people alive, a passenger named Goulding and five crew members:

“Mr. Goulding and the stewardess floated ashore upon the quarter deck.” (From the Oct. 16, 1834, issue of a New York newspaper, the Mercury.)

The OED’s earliest citation is a bit later: “Mrs. F. and I were the only ladies on board; and there was no stewardess” (from Harriet Martineau’s book Society in America, 1837).

The use of the word in rail travel came along a couple of decades later. We found this example in a news account of a train wreck:

“A train hand, named Miller, had his leg broken above the ankle, and seemed much injured. Margaret, the stewardess of the train, was likewise bruised.” (From the Daily Express of Petersburg, Va., Oct. 30, 1855.)

Soon afterward, on July 29, 1858, a travel article in the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in West Virginia noted that on the Petersburg & Weldon Railway, a “stewardess travels with each train to wait on the lady passengers—serve ice water to them—hold their babies and other baggage occasionally.” (Note the reference to “babies and other baggage”!)

The earliest example we’ve found of “stewardess” meaning an aircraft attendant appeared in the New York Times on July 20, 1930. The reporter describes firsthand his experience aboard a flight from San Francisco to Chicago:

“And then there is Miss Inez Keller, stewardess or rather traveling hostess. The Boeing system has solved the problem of looking after the passengers by putting girls on all the liners.”

Later that year, an Australian newspaper ran this item: “A successful trial flight was made with the finest and largest passenger air liners in the world, each having luxurious accommodation for 38 passengers, with smoking saloon two pilots, steward and stewardess.” (From the Western Herald, Nov. 18, 1930.)

The OED’s first example appeared the following year in a photo caption published in United Airlines News (Aug. 5, 1931): “Uniformed stewardesses employed on the Chicago-San Diego divisions of United. The picture shows the original group of stewardesses employed.”

Oxford defines the newest sense of “stewardess” this way: “A female attendant on a passenger aircraft who attends to the needs and comfort of the passengers.” It adds that the word also means “a similar attendant on other kinds of passenger transport.”

This brings us to the larger subject—the use of the suffix “-ess” to form what the OED calls “nouns denoting female persons or animals.”

The ancestral source of “-ess,” according to etymologists, is the Greek -ισσα (-issa in our alphabet), which passed into Late Latin (-issa), then on into the Romance languages, including French (-esse).

In the Middle Ages, according to OED citations, English adopted many French words with their feminine endings already attached, including “countess” (perhaps before 1160), “hostess” (circa 1290), “abbess” (c. 1300), “lioness” (1300s), “mistress” (c. 1330), “arbitress” (1340), “enchantress” (c. 1374), “devouress” (1382), “sorceress” (c. 1384), “duchess” (c. 1385), “princess” (c. 1385), “conqueress” (before 1400), and “paintress” (c. 1450).

Some other English words, though not borrowed wholly from French, were modeled after the French pattern, like “adulteress” (before 1382) and “authoress” (1478).

And in imitation of such words, “-ess” endings were added to a few native words of Germanic origin, forming “murderess” (c. 1200); “goddess” (some time before 1387), and obsolete formations like “dwelleress” and “sleeresse” (“slayer” + “-ess”), both formed before 1382.

As the OED explains, writers of the 1500s and later centuries “very freely” invented words ending in “-ess,” but “many of these are now obsolete or little used, the tendency of modern usage being to treat the agent-nouns [ending] in –er, and the nouns indicating profession or occupation, as of common gender, unless there be some special reason to the contrary.”

Some of the dusty antiques include “martyress” (possibly 1473), “doctress” (1549), “buildress” (1569), “widowess” (1596), “creditress” (1608), “gardeneress” (before 1645), “tailoress” (1654), “farmeress” (1672), “vinteress” (1681), “auditress” (1667), “philosophess” (1668), “professoress” (1744), “chiefess” (1778), “editress” (1799), and “writeress” (1822).

Still seen, though rapidly going out of fashion, are “hostess” (c. 1290), “authoress” (1478), “poetess” (1531), “heiress” (1656), and “sculptress” (1662).

Of the few such occupational words that are still widely used, perhaps the most common are “actress” (1586) and “waitress” (c. 1595). These “-tress” endings, the OED says, “have in most cases been suggested by, and may be regarded as virtual adaptations of, the corresponding French words [ending] in -trice.

In conclusion, “stewardess” was created at a time—in the 1600s—when English writers created all sorts of what the OED calls “feminine derivatives expressing sex.” It was also a time when educated English speakers regarded their native tongue as inferior to French and Latin, the gendered languages that were the lingua franca of nobles, clergy, and scholars.

Now “stewardess,” like so many of those feminized nouns, is rapidly becoming obsolete. But unlike the others, it hasn’t been replaced by a unisex “steward.”

Why? We don’t know the answer. But for whatever reason, as “stewardess” has fallen out of favor it’s taken “steward” down with it—at least in reference to air travel.

The usual replacement, “flight attendant,” showed up in the late 1940s, and passed “stewardess” in popularity in the late 1990s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The earliest example we’ve found for “flight attendant” is from the Jan. 26, 1947, issue of the Santa Cruz, Calif., Sentinel about a Hong Kong plane crash in which all four people were killed:

“The company listed those aboard as Capt. O. T. Weymouth, an American pilot, and a crew of three Filipinos, including Miss Lourdes Chuidian, flight attendant.”

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