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An Alphabet of Feminism #6: F is for Female

2010 November 8




Are you all sitting comfortably?

‘Well, well,’ I thought, as I cast my eye over the (now somewhat bedraggled) series of scrawled lists of letters for the Alphabet shoved into my pockets, bursting out of purses and sketchbooks and rotating in scarcely less tatty form in my head. For the question was obvious: What am I going to do for F? Because, you see, Z, Y, X, all those, they’re not actually that hard. They don’t have that much riding on them. But F … well, from the various incarnations of the F-word onwards … a headache.

Because, you see, the word feminism just isn’t that interesting.

Or rather, its interest lies in its power to evoke wide-ranging, frequently violent reactions while remaining semantically straightforward. Feminism gets precisely a centimetre of a three-column page in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Because it means two very simple and uncontentious things: in rare form, ‘the qualities of women’, and as it is more commonly understood today, ‘advocacy of the claims and rights of women’, first used sometime around 1895. All those extra things, the bad reputation … those are add-ons, and not linguistically valid ones, either. So I turned my attention away from feminism, and thought that perhaps I would go back to basics. After all, how often do we think about what female means?

Hey ho, let’s go.

Photo: seahorses mating

From Used with permission.

Well, it derives from the Middle English ‘femelle’ via the Latin ‘femella’ which is in turn a diminutive of ‘femina’ (= ‘woman’ – yes, another diminutive. They keep popping up, don’t they?) In its most basic incarnation, female simply means ‘belonging to the sex which bears offspring’. This does not have to involve birthing: let me tell you of the seahorses.

Despite his undisputed ‘masculine’ role, the male seahorse receives a parcel of eggs from the female. Upon doing this, he sets out on an aqueous pregnancy-journey, bearing his unborn sea-foals in a pouch specially evolved for the purpose. During incubation, the female what knocked him up visits him each day for a brief catch-up (approximately six minutes), during which time they revisit the rituals of their courtship (holding tails, doing a little pre-dawn dance, smoking that bud and chillin’).

[Here, you must listen to The Sea Horse by Flanders & Swann. I’ll wait here.]

Unlike words like woman and lady, female therefore has a very precise biological meaning that underscores its subsequent development: it is unsurprising that the next place it shows up in the dictionary is in botany (1791), where it refers to the parts of the plant that bear fruit, or, in reference to ‘a blossom or flower’, ‘having a pistil and no stamens; pistillate; fruit bearing’ (slightly later: 1796). Of course, ‘perfect’ plants are ‘bisexual’ in that they possess both male and female parts (this latter, the ‘gynoecium’, literally meaning ‘woman house’). GCSE Biology ftw.

Alongside this specific development is an extremely general one: ‘consisting of females’, ‘pertaining to women’ (the dictionary quotes Pope on ‘the force of female lungs’), and then ‘characteristic of womankind’ in the seventeenth century and ‘womanish’ in the eighteenth. It is curious that the usage here should be ‘womankind‘ rather than ‘femality’ (of which more presently), since woman seems pretty clearly human, and therefore arguably more subjective, than a simple reference to the egg-bearing species.

How low can you go?

It is exactly this sort of little shift that leads to female‘s seventh meaning, as an epithet of ‘various material and immaterial things, denoting simplicity, inferiority, weakness, or the like’ (one wonders with alarm what ‘the like’ might be). Here, of course, we have the realms of the ‘feminine rhyme’, which, while often weaker, are nonetheless much harder to pull off (and more effective, when successful) than any number of the old Moon and June. And mechanics also gets a shout out: female is there applied (as of 1669) to ‘that part of an instrument or contrivance which receives the corresponding male part’. (I love the dry non-specifics of ‘instrument or contrivance’.) However, it should come as no surprise to find that female eventually passes into apparently exclusively negative use: ‘as a synonym for ‘woman’ now only contemptuous’.

They are no ladies. The only word good enough for them is the word of opprobrium – females.

– Anonymous (1889)

‘Female’ … A circular hole or socket having a spiral thread adapted to receive the thread of the male screw.

– Anonymous (1669)

By way of a postscript: some now rare variants on the word. Femality can be both ‘female nature’ and ‘unmanliness’; feminality refers to ‘a knick-knack such as women like’, and Feminie is ‘Womankind; especially the Amazons‘. We like it when things stay self-referential.

image: an illustration of an initial F covered in sprouting flowers

NEXT WEEK: G is for Girl


8 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 8, 2010

    Diminutives do keep popping up. An interesting example is the suffix -ette, which has three distinct meanings:

    1) Female e.g. usherette.

    2) Small (= diminutive) e.g. kitchenette.

    3) Imitation e.g. leatherette.

    The last of those seems to have the most offensive possible implications regarding women.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 8, 2010

    Until two or three years ago, I assumed that “female” was the word “male” with the unknown (to me) prefix “fe-“… Just as “woman” is “man” with a prefix… once “wifman” = “wif” [hence “wife”] + “man”. It came as a relief to discover that “female” and “male”, despite their similarity, are taken from different roots. But I wonder whether “female” flourished as a word (at least in part) owing to its looking like “fe-” + “male”.

    • Hodge permalink
      November 9, 2010

      ‘Male’ is apparently also a diminutive: from ‘masculus’, dim. of ‘mas’ (male), so they are paired in that sense. Given that, I suppose the diminutive here is less problematic.

      My real interest in the diminutive thing goes back to ‘doll’, I guess, and the use of nicknames in particular. I remember once reading an article in Cosmo or one of its cognates arguing that the best way to spice up your lovelife is to adopt a ‘-ie’ nickname (so Kirstie, not Kirsty). Apparently this makes you sound fun lovin’, and I suppose it has a very similar root to what you’re talking about with the -ette: you don’t really want to think about where that ends up, do you?

      And when are page three girls ever called anything other than ‘Sam’, ‘Nicki’, ‘Charlie’ etc? That’s not what their grandmothers call them.
      Alas, I have never seen a ‘Kitchennette’ in the news in briefs. One day, maybe.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        November 12, 2010

        You mention page three girls being called ‘Sam’ (and Ms Fox comes immediately to mind) but ‘Sam’ is a unisex diminutive, and could equally be Samantha or Samuel. Diminutives ending in “i”, “ie” or “y” are especially interesting, I think. Nicola, for example, can equally become Nicki, Nickie, Nicky or Niki (and maybe others with the same pronunciation). Nicolas, by contrast, is likely to become Nick. In other cases, “i” or “ie” is usually female, while “y” is usually male. Theresa, for example, is likely to become Terri or perhaps Terrie, while Terrance is apt to become Terry. While Bobby Shafto (in the old song) is evidently male “silver buckles on his knee”, Bobbi Shafto would certainly be female. In fact, Robert Shafto was a real man of the eighteenth century, but were he alive now he’d be much more likely to be Bob than Bobby. I can’t recall meeting a man styled as “Bobby”. These days, I think, Bobby has joined Nicky in its application by sex — so that Bobbi, Bobbie and Bobby would probably all be women. I suspect that the last couple of hundred years has seen a move move away from “y” diminutives for males. My impression is that Charlie was once specifically male (Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chan) but is so no longer. Perhaps it is currently (like Sam) unisex. I suppose that, for men (Charles), Charlie is not really a diminutive at all — turning a one syllable name into two syllables. Charlie has the same number of syllables as Charlotte, but seems less of a mouthful. I’m not sure where this takes us, but I find myself fascinated by sex-specific and unisex diminutives, not least when they display shifting usage. Curious signifiers of femaleness and maleness which (I suspect) pass generally unnoticed.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          November 12, 2010

          Oh — and “kitchenette”. I think that “kitchenette” chiefly flourished as a word in the 1950s and 1960s. Small new-build flats, or large Victorian houses newly divided into flats, often had tiny kitchens. No doubt a “kitchenette” (which once sounded bright and modern) made a flat more saleable than a “poky little kitchen”… although the two mean much the same.

          The kitchen, of course, has traditionally been taken as a women’s preserve, and I think kitchenettes were mostly intended for the use of women. There may be more than a trace of the female sense (as in “usherette”) with “kitchenette”.

          These days, celebrity male chefs have claimed kitchens for the male sex. But the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver need elbow room. I don’t readily imagine them cooped up in a kitchenette.

          On another tack, Jamie Oliver forms an interesting example of an “ie” diminutive used by a man. Perhaps this is especially interesting in view of your writing: “I remember once reading an article in Cosmo or one of its cognates arguing that the best way to spice up your lovelife is to adopt a ‘-ie’ nickname (so Kirstie, not Kirsty).”

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 8, 2010

    My favourite feminine rhyme comes from a poem written by a man, and concerning two men (not much else feminine, here)… “The Two Old Bachelors” by Edward Lear:

    ‘You earnest Sage!’ aloud they cried, your book you’ve read enough in! –
    We wish to chop you into bits and mix you into Stuffin’!’ –

    Enough in/Stuffin’ — brilliant!

  4. Simon permalink
    November 8, 2010

    ‘He turned from grisly saints and martyrs hairy
    To the sweet portraits of the virgin Mary’

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