Word Nerdery

The English word female, derived from the Old French femelle, derived from the Medieval Latin femella, which is itself a diminutive of femina. Whew! Where femina meant woman, femella meant young girl. Now let’s talk about male. It’s likewise derived from Old French, masle was the adjectival form and mâle the noun form. The Old French was, surprise, surprise, derived from a Latin term, masculus, a diminutive of mas. Mas was the noun form, meaning male person or a animal, with masculus the adjectival form, essentially: masculine.

Before we go further, please note the difference between femina and mas. Feminia is clearly not a derivative of mas, but female has the appearance of being male plus a prefix (for iron!?).

Female can be used in its noun form to refer to animals (and to gendered non-human beings like robots), but can only be used in its adjectival form when it comes to women. “The females of the pack…” versus “The female passengers…” That is, when it comes to people, the word female modifies persons/places/things, but isn’t itself a person/place/thing. The exception to this rule is scientific contexts where sex is of more significance than person. “Human females possess the ability to…” Human is the adjective in that sentence fragment, while female is the noun. That scientific writing places higher importance on organs than on person is a small part of why the scientific community has difficulty with conceptualizing trans, intersex, and genderqueer people, and therefore treating them with dignity.

But these days, it’s common to see the noun form used to refer to female human beings. “Well, you know what females are like.” Not really, broheim, not really. I’ve done some digging but can’t pin down the origin of the slang noun use of female. Lest you put it all on the shoulders of kids these days, or on hip hop, consider Charlie Feathers’ 1974 rockabilly tune, That Certain Female. Suffice it to say, the noun form of female isn’t new — but what’s it all about? “You know what females are like.” It has a diminishing effect. Of course it’s the scientific use, or the animal use — the noun use of female reduces women to body parts or bitches. But is it, as some suggest, a deliberate push back against feminism? I’m not sure. Certainly it’s become prevalent in the last few years, but it’s unclear to me that the spread is tied to consciously anti-feminist groups like Men’s Rights Activists. Another possibility is just as likely: it’s an old slang term with particular geography and its usage has spread thanks to social media… and MRAs.

Maybe? Where will you put your money?

Ferengi Fedora

Thank you Eroto-Thanatos, it had to be done.

Language Links

What’s new and exciting in the world of language, literacy, and writing? Let’s find out!

The new Venice Time Machine — great name, could be a band with two ukuleles and a synth! — will “digitize and catalog a staggering amount of historical documents — a combined 50 miles worth of shelves! — then turn the data into an internet archive and adaptable 3D model.” The aim is to create a searchable, 3D model of Venice itself, throughout its history, through its words.

The good people of BIC, responsible for the world’s first and still most popular ballpoint pen, have now brought us the Universal Typeface Project. Smithsonian.com describes it:

The Universal Typeface is a constantly evolving, algorithmically produced font created by averaging hundreds of thousands of handwriting samples submitted to BIC’s website. Anyone with a touchscreen can help shape the Universal Typeface by linking their phone or tablet to the website and writing directly on the touchscreen — the lettering is quickly transferred to the Universal Typeface algorithm. As of this writing, more than 400,000 samples have been collected from around the world, and the resulting alphabet is … well, sort of boring. It turns out that averaging thousands of authentic expressions of individuality yields something that looks like a grade school writing sample.

Over at Wired, Gideon Lewis-Kraus has unearthed the “fasinatng … frustrating … fascinating history of autocorrect.” He interviewed Dean Hachamovitch, the engineer who owns the patent for autocorrect. It’s fascinating reading, for the tech and the language minded alike. What about non-standard spelling, or accepted but less common variations? What about rules of grammar still in effect, but on the outs?

On the subject of judgment, though, it became clear even in those early days that a sort of editorial consciousness was at work in Word’s spell-check and autocorrect systems. Judgement, for example, isn’t a misspelling—just about every dictionary lists it as an acceptable alternative. But autocorrect tends to enforce primary spellings in all circumstances. On idiom, some of its calls seemed fairly clear-cut: gorilla warfare became guerrilla warfare, for example, even though a wildlife biologist might find that an inconvenient assumption. But some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn’t want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check’s most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.”