Q: The restrooms in my last two office buildings are labeled “Mens” and “Ladies.” Is this common? The “Ladies” sign makes sense—it’s the plural of “Lady.” But “Men” is already plural, so why the extra “s”? Did the sign maker intend the possessive, but leave out the apostrophe? Or is it an attempt to be symmetrical?
A: You can see all sorts of signs for public toilets, some designated for either men or women, others welcoming everybody. Some use words, others use symbols, and still others use both.
In the US, a public toilet for men is usually referred to as a “men’s room,” and verbal signs typically say “Men.” If an “s” is added, it should be accompanied by an apostrophe (“Men’s”) to indicate that the term is short for a “men’s room.”
A public toilet for women in the US is usually called a “women’s room” or “ladies’ room,” with verbal signs reading “Women” or “Ladies.” (In the UK, people often call a gendered loo “the ladies” or “the gents.”)
We haven’t noticed any “Mens” signs on bathroom doors, and our online searches suggest that the usage isn’t all that common. The no-apostrophe version barely registers in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks terms in digitized books.
However, we’ve seen many examples of “mens and ladies” used in marketing clothing. Here are a few: “Mens and Ladies Tops” … “Mens and Ladies Performance T-shirts” … “Mens and Ladies Red Polo” … “Mens and Ladies Sweater Coats” … “Mens and Ladies Sweatshirts & Hoodies” … “Mens and Ladies Cotton Gloves” … “Mens and Ladies Pants and Bibs.”
We suspect, as you do, that this use of “mens” may be influenced by “ladies.” In those examples, the plural noun “ladies” is being used attributively—that is adjectivally—to modify another noun.
A plural noun ending in “s” can often be used attributively without an apostrophe, but a plural noun that doesn’t end in “s” (like “men” or “women”) needs an apostrophe plus “s” to modify another noun (“men’s sweatshirts” or “women’s T-shirts”).
Speaking of “men” and “women,” let’s end with an etymological excursion. You may be surprised to hear this, but the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated. Here’s how we explain it in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:
“In Anglo-Saxon times, when words were bubbling away in the stewpot of Old English, there were several ways to refer to men and women. For a few hundred years, manna and other early versions of our modern word ‘man’ referred merely to a person regardless of sex—that is, a human being. So how did the Anglo-Saxons tell one sex from the other? A single or married man was a wer or a waepman (literally a ‘weapon-person’). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman.
“By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word ‘woman.’ Meanwhile, wif, which had its own share of spellings before becoming ‘wife’ in the 1400s, led a double life. It could mean a married woman, as it does today, but also a woman, married or single, in a humble trade—an archaic usage that survives in the quaint terms ‘fishwife’ and ‘alewife.’
“Speaking of quaint terms, whatever happened to the weapon-people? Around the year 1000, the various versions of manna began to mean an adult male as well as a human being. By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word ‘man,’ while the old macho terms wer and waepman had fallen out of use.”