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