October 27, 2002
Inappropriate Reactions

A couple of weeks ago Jerry Falwell called Islam a violent religion and some Muslims objected to his words by going on murderous rampages and putting a fatwa on Falwell. As Opinion Journal's Best of the Web put it, "Don't call me violent or I'll have to kill someone". That reminded me of something I've been intending to blog ever since.

Six or eight years ago, I was teaching Latin at a university in Tuscaloosa that shall remain nameless. One day I was explaining how agent-nouns work. Just about any English verb can be turned into an agent-noun by adding '-er', as in 'worker', 'laborer', 'singer', and so on, with a few words also having feminine equivalents. Similarly, Latin verbs form their agent-nouns with endings in -tor or -ssor for the masculine, -trix or -strix for the feminine. So a male ruler would a regnator, a female ruler a regnatrix, a male 'sitter-besider' or counsellor an assessor and a female an assestrix. I told my students that the only English pair of agent-nouns I know that follow the Latin rules of formation is 'aviator' and 'aviatrix', the latter (so far as I have observed) only applied to Amelia Ehrhardt. The other pairs have gone through French or something (don't ask me, I'm a Latin teacher), so we get 'actor' and 'actress', 'waiter' and 'waitress', and so on.

Anyway, one of my students said "What about 'dominatrix'?" My reply was twofold: (1) There doesn't seem to be any masculine equivalent in English: 'dominator' may be an English word, but it doesn't mean a man who dresses up in leather and whips people for money. (2) Besides, where would a Tuscaloosan have heard of a dominatrix? Perhaps I was naïve, but I had assumed that one would have had to go at least to Birmingham to find one, more likely all the way to Atlanta or New Orleans, and that my students would be unfamiliar with the profession. It turned out that most of them knew all about dominatrices from watching Geraldo, who had just done a show on them.

Later in the same class, a male student (we'll call him 'Jay', since that's not his actual first name) told a female student that he thought she would make an excellent dominatrix. She was quite naturally severely offended, and said something like 'Jaaaay, that's terrible!' . . . but she also slapped him. That was a mistake. He of course said "See what I mean?" I don't know whether he had planned that part from the start.

Update: (10/29, 6:55 AM) Edited for spelling and further recollected detail. Oops. Thanks, Quana!

Posted by Dr. Weevil at October 27, 2002 08:03 PM

the latter (so far as I have observed) only applied to Amelia Ehrhardt

Let me offer a few examples so that Amelia Earhart doesn't remain the 'only one' to which you might apply the term 'aviatrix': Amy Johnson (first woman solo England to Australia, 11,000 miles; at the outbreak of WWII she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and went down in the Thames,1941), Ruth Nichols (rated for dirigible, glider, autogiro, landplane, seaplane, amphibian, monoplanes, biplanes, tri-planes, twin and four engine transports and supersonic jets), Bessie Coleman (1921, first U.S. black female licensed pilot, barnstormer), Nancy Bird-Walton (first Commonwealth woman pilot to earn commerical certification to carry passengers).

You get my drift.

Posted by: Quana on October 28, 2002 09:44 AM

Who'd want to use a dominatrix anyway, now that laser printers and inkjets have gotten so cheap?

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on October 28, 2002 05:14 PM

Sorry, Quana, I did not mean to imply that Amelia Earhart was the only notable female aviator, just that the others are usually called aviators. I haven't tried a Google search, but in my experience the word 'aviatrix' has generally come up only in reference to Earhart.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on October 28, 2002 07:12 PM

ouch! Vile pun alert!

Posted by: pinax on October 28, 2002 09:55 PM

You forgot executor and executrix, as in the person appointed by the testator (or testatrix) to execute the testator's (or testatrix's) will. Somewhat obscure, I grant you, but perfectly valid agent-nouns that follow the true Latinate rules of construction.

Posted by: David Gillies on October 29, 2002 11:06 AM

Thanks, DG. I got an e-mail from a woman who was editing some journal and found to her dismay that editrix@aol.com was already taken. Like the two you give, that one doesn't seem to be in common use, though aviatrix isn't exactly everyday language.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on October 29, 2002 12:01 PM

And presumably Headjob Agonistes would be a bloviatrix, were he female.

Posted by: David Gillies on October 29, 2002 12:53 PM

I'm the would-be "editrix" of Dr. Weevil's post a couple back. I can't say I'd ever seen the word actually used in print -- I just wanted the screenname for fun, and was kind of amazed that someone else had beaten me to it.

I'd forgotten all about "testatrix," which is strange, since that one I *have* seen in print, many times. I don't know whether the word's in current use outside the merry ranks of probate lawyers (or within them, for that matter), but in a certain vintage of English murder mystery it's not uncommon. "Executrix" doesn't appear very frequently. Women in mysteries write an awful lot of wills, but they don't often execute them.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on October 29, 2002 11:36 PM

don't forget who bessie coleman was

Posted by: bob on January 27, 2004 10:19 AM