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Any poetesses out there?

Robert Fisk, whom Language Log describes as “the well-known linguistic paleoconservative,” wrote recently in The Independent about a “trap” he had set for the sub-editors in an article:

I referred to Vita Sackville-West as a "poetess". And sure enough, the sub (or "subess") changed it – as I knew he or she would – to "poet". Aha! Soon as I saw it, I knew I could write this week about the mysterious – not to say mystical – grammar of feminism and political correctness.

He continues in a familiar and tedious rant about the way that feminism and political correctitude are emasculating the English language. Given how often you must have heard that sort of thing, it seems unnecessary to quote further.

But what one might expect even a linguistic paleoconservative to know is that poetess was objectionable long before the reign of terror that political correctitude has imposed on Mr. Fisk. The word suggests a nineteenth-century, oh-look-women-can-rhyme condescension. It’s a word for such writers as Julia A. Moore, “the Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who so amused Mark Twain that he imitated her naive and awkward verses in Huckleberry Finn. I’ll leave open a challenge to find any published female poet of repute in the past half-century who has described herself as a poetess. The corresponding term is not poet but poetaster. Any sub worth his salt would have changed it.

People who write about language ought to demonstrate some understanding of it.


Personal postscript: My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, was the postmaster in Elizaville, Kentucky, for twenty-four years. That’s postmaster, not postmistress. (The Postal Service did not acknowledge sex unless you tried to get it through the mail.) Postmaster was the title the government of the United States gave her, and it was the one she used. Mr. Fisk can be grateful that he did not tangle with her.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:30 AM | | Comments (16)


Someone actually called me an editrix once! I thought I'd become physically ill!

I love the personal postscript best of all.

A friend of mine is currently pursuing her Master's degree in theatre, and finds that she has to correct people rather often -- she's an actor, not an actress, thank you very much.

I think if Mr. Fisk had used this as bait for his sub-editor, it might have had some shred of relevance. As it stands, he may as well have used some asinine construction, such as "Senatress" (which I sincerely hope has never actually been used).

One of my grandmothers was also a postmaster - and apparently not someone to tangle with either.

Nice post. Where do you stand on the whole spokesman/spokeswoman/spokesperson. I was told once upon a time in Baltimore that we had to genderize such mouthpieces.

I yield to no one - save perhaps Mr Delingpole and Mr Hannan - in detesting Mr Fisk. However, it should I think be realised that he was discussing the English language, not the American. Larkin was a poet; CA Duffy is a poetess.

In the same way, my dear sir, your mother, had she kept a post office in, let us say, Hants (and, as is commonly the case, a village shop), should have been a postmistress, unless of course she kept the sub post office, in which event she should have been properly a sub-postmistress.

Poetaster sounds like a felony that carries a 25-life sentence. And I seem to be a person - I mean woman, female, person of the feminine persuasion - who is not amused by the artificial impositions of the left. What, exactly, is wrong with the word "actress?" It is accurate, descriptive and I've not yet heard Dame Maggie Smith object to it. The thin of skin seem to be out in full force, although poetess seems dated, even for the Brits.

The Huffington Post uses "actress."
How insulting! :)

Would sombody please ask Th University of Miami to rename their "Poetess Archive."
I guess opinions vary on that little "ess." :)

Wish you had a do over button for when I stupidly let a typo sneak by. I know how to spell "somebody." I promise. :(

We take a relaxed attitude toward typos in comments at You Don't Say. Anyone who gets shirty about typos is apt to discover that his comment has been deleted.

Patricia, I understand that it is difficult for you to let any opportunity to pillory the left pass you by. But did you bother to read the referenced Language Log post?
The OED, in addition to offering a usage note about poetess ("The gender-neutral poet is now often preferred"), gives some evidence in its citations that some people have been uneasy about the word for more than two centuries:

1748 LADY LUXBOROUGH Let. 28 Apr. in Lett. to W. Shenstone (1775) 21, I am no Poetess; which reproachful name I would avoid, even if I were capable of acquiring it.
1903 Academy 17 Jan. 71/1 Jesse Berridge is a poet, not a poetess, to use a somewhat outmoded word.

Apparently, whatever you mean by "the left" has been mucking up the language with its radical attempt to evaluate womens' talents apart from their sex since the 18th century.

I was taking a graduate course in Middle English literature when the (female) professor was elected a fellow of the one of residential colleges. There was much jocularity among her peers over what the feminine form of "fellow" might be, but she was able to point to a 14th century poem (I believe that was the century) in which "fellow" was clearly feminine.

From Patrick A. Vincent’s The romantic poetess: European cultures, politics, and gender, 1820-1840:

In his 1755 Dictionary, Samuel Johnson states that the poetess is a “female poet” and traces the word back to Old French. While Johnson’s definition, in line with eighteenth-century usage of the term, was arguably neutral, the connotations of poetess evolved during the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth into something more self-conscious, even self-consciously derogatory, closer to poetaster than to poet. … [T]he term poetess plays into the prescribed notion of women’s poetry that is excessively emotional and lacking in structure. The poetess writes effusions or poesy rather than poetry proper; her art is spontaneous and requires little effort on the reader’s part.

I loathe the artifice of such terms as "gender- neutral." And the OED is not immune to the fashion of the times. And it is the left - universities leading the charge in many cases - who are the prime offenders. If a female who makes her living upon the stage resents "actor" to describe what she does, she'd better not enroll in medical school. Or put herself in line to be a Professor anywhere. Really, this is too silly. And I like Editrix - it has a certain Latinate ring to it.

So, should a woman who enrolls in medical school expect to be called a doctoress upon completion? Should a female professor be called a professoress? There's something I'm missing here.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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