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The quest for equal-opportunity nouns

The Monitor's language columnist muses over just who can qualify as a curmudgeon.

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It's a question I've been ducking for a while, but somehow I feel the time has come to confront it: Is curmudgeon an equal-opportunity noun? Can it apply to a woman as well as a man?

(I will leave you to imagine, Dear Reader, why this question should trouble a female wordsmith who not infrequently feels called upon to apply the brakes to the language – even as her wiser self realizes that change and renewal are essential.)

The "quick definition" at the dictionary website is "a crusty irascible cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas."

Well. No stinting on adjectives there, is there? Other dictionaries are more gender-specific. Merriam-Webster gives "a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man." The dictionary the Monitor uses, on the other hand, gives this: a surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered person; cantankerous fellow." Person is clearly an equal-opportunity noun; fellow not so much.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces fellow back to an Old English word meaning "partner." Fellow has been used familiarly since Middle English for "man, male person" but the word is "not etymologically masculine," OED says.

Still, when the astronomer Maria Mitchell discovered a comet and became, in 1848, the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the rest of the membership balked at calling her a "fellow." Instead, they called her an "honorary member."

Nowadays, female "fellows" are everywhere at think tanks and universities, proving that you can be a fellow without having to be an actual guy. In any case, one hopes that Mitchell moved on from this slight, without being a curmudgeon about it – since that option might not have been open to her either.


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