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Mind your language

Is ‘female’ still an insult?

Students seem not to think so

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

‘More deadly than the male,’ said my husband archly. He was knowingly quoting Kipling, though I don’t know why he should, since Kipling was not fashionable when he was young.

His cue was a remark he overheard from an academic former colleague puzzled by the frequency of female in student essays, where woman might have been expected. This usage is said to be ‘now commonly avoided by good writers, except with contemptuous implication’, said the Oxford English Dictionary in 1895, when it got round to considering words beginning with F. It had not always been depreciative, for, more than 600 years ago, with no intention of being rude, old John Wyclif wrote (echoing the reference to the end of the world in Matthew 24: 41): ‘Two femalis shulen be grynding at a queerne.’

By the nature of things, female was often contrasted with male. ‘Saturne did onely eate up his male-children, not his females,’ remarked a strange clergyman called John Gaule in the whirling words of his Mag-astro-mancer of 1652, a tract against astrological divination. It is not that the word female is male with a prefix tacked on to it. Male comes from Latin masculus, itself a combination of the diminutive suffix –culus and the noun mas, of unknown origin. Female comes from Latin too, femella, from femina with the suffix –ella. Femina comes down from an old Indo-European base signifying ‘to suck’.

There was a feeling in the 20th century that female applied more properly to animals and plants. This left it open to humorous employment. In one of his golfing stories, P.G. Wodehouse wrote: ‘The Bingley-Perkins combination, owing to some inspired work by the female of the species, managed to keep their lead.’ Like my husband, he was, no doubt, making a literary reference to Kipling, but the phrase female of the species has been spotted in texts from a century or so earlier with no humorous intent.

But a frequent collocation put female together with a role presumed to be male: female soldiers (1621), female doctor (1733), female professor (1784) and female prime minister (1846). Now that we have had all those, it seems strange still to use female as though it still bore monstrous connotations.

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