Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

How We Talk About "Other" Men and Women

Via Twitter, theatre director Jen Bender posed a question that had recently come up in conversation: "A married man's lover is his mistress. What's the name for a woman's illicit lover?" Searching for an answer to that question points to the many gender-related asymmetries in English.

Earlier this year, Orin Hargraves devoted a Language Lounge column to just this type of asymmetry in our lexicon. Some words inevitably refer to women and have no exact male equivalent, such as coquette, jezebel, vamp, concubine, and spinster. As Orin notes, these words tend to cast women in a negative light, and they persist in the language despite the progress of the feminist movement.

So what about mistress, in the sense of "illicit female lover"? It would seem to fall into the same category of words for women with questionable lifestyles, while men who assume the same role don't get their own gender-specific label. Mistress in its early usage was paired with master, of which it is the feminine form. But when the adulterous meaning got attached to mistress, master did not follow suit. The Oxford English Dictionary shows the relevant sense becoming popular in the 17th century, as in this quotation from John Donne: "Those women, whom the Kings were to take for their Wives, and not for Mistresses, (which is but a later name for Concubines)."

The online edition of the OED now includes a historical thesaurus (a truly great resource), which allows you to click on the sense of a word to find synonyms and near-synonyms throughout the history of English, arranged chronologically. Selecting the "illicit female lover" meaning of mistress reveals a panoply of words specific to women, 45 in all — from chevese in Old English, to doxy, pinnace, nobsy, and underput in early Modern English, to 19th-century terms like fancy-woman, fancy-girl, fancy-piece, poplolly, leveret, and other woman.

But if you click over to the "illicit male lover" category in the semantic hierarchy of the OED's historical thesaurus, the pickings are slim. From Middle English, there is leman and concubine, but these words were more often applied to women. Not until the 19th-century are there terms that are specifically male: fancy man and other man, which are clearly modeled on fancy woman and other woman.

While we're lacking a good mistress equivalent, there are words that can apply equally to "other" men and women, namely lover and paramour. When I checked out the long-term patterns of usage of these words on the Google Books Ngram Viewer, I noticed something interesting. While the two words are ostensibly gender-neutral, they have historically been used much more often for male referents. Compare how her paramour has outpaced his paramour, and even more starkly, how her lover has outpaced his lover. (I am assuming, of course, that historical texts in these cases would by and large refer to heterosexual relationships.)

It seems that the availability of mistress and various other female-only alternatives has allowed these ungendered terms to swing toward men. There are, no doubt, other explanations for these patterns: in the case of lover, which has a broader semantic range than paramour, perhaps "loving" (of various kinds) has in the past been thought of as an activity that men engage in more than women. (Jen Bender says the idea makes her think of "a young troubador wandering the streets, professing his love.") Whatever the reason, this set of terms for clandestine extramarital partners is further proof that our language has deep, structural imbalances in describing the sexes.

(Update: The delightful Twitter persona GRAMMARHULK suggests another male equivalent for mistress, borrowed from Italian: cicisbeo. I've seen that term suggested elsewhere online, but I'm not sure it's such a good fit. In Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, a cicisbeo was the "professed gallant" who attended a married woman, also known as a cavalier servente. It's really more of a male equivalent for courtesan. For more, see James Harbeck's "Word Tasting Note" on his Sesquiotica blog.)

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday July 26th 2012, 2:03 AM
Comment by: Patricia D. (Val-des-Monts Canada)
What an interesting article. It would be great to apply this analysis to other languages; French, for example. "MaƮtresse" (mistress) still indicates that the woman is "loved" by a man and has power over him (as in the new "First Girlfriend" in France) or has totally surrendered her heart to him. And women call "their" man, or men, "amant", sometimes even when they are referring to their husband. Proof of how language is culture. Does it survive in tweetland?
Thursday July 26th 2012, 3:54 AM
Comment by: Ankit S.
Yes, this is very interesting article. I would like to say that this is the proof of male dominance in the world and it will continue in future.
It is inbuilt in the blood of the people. we have to teach the new generation, what is the importance of the woman in our life and it should be like a special subject in each and every standard which may make difference to their thinking. In most of the religion, woman treat like goddess and they preach deity but the same people use women for their satisfaction, need and greed. This is the truth.

If there is any grammatical error in my comments, then please tell me.
Thank you
Thursday July 26th 2012, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
You're correct in saying we have to teach the new generation Ankit. The most difficult part of achieving that is the fact that the most effective approach to teaching is by example. If the practice continues, and it will, then an example is set. If society continues to allow the example to be set then the lesson is reinforced.
Thursday July 26th 2012, 7:23 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Romeo? Consort? Bull?
Thursday July 26th 2012, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
Lesbian's counterpart?
Thursday July 26th 2012, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
Being a woman and fully aware of the lingering inequities between men and women, I would like to hear a few more words applied to men who are illicit lovers. Unmarried lovers or men who "love" for money could be included. Beach Boy, Toy Boy, and what's that one where women pay men they meet casually. Darn, sure sorry that one isn't on the tip of my tongue. Anyhow, I'm glad to see questioning of our language in this way. I realize it takes centuries to change any of it, but it's a start.
Thursday July 26th 2012, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Sometimes our language favors women in the area of interpersonal relationships. To "mother" a child means to be attentive and protective - to nurture, love and care for the child. To father a child means to impregnate a woman. Sad.

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday July 26th 2012, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fascinating research and analysis, Ben. I think it would be a good idea to continue the pattern of modeling terms for males on those already developed for females. Moxy? Overput? But surely it is for women, representing half of speakers, to develop and establish the right term for the other man.
Thursday July 26th 2012, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Patricia S. (Morristown, NJ, NJ)
@ DiVoran L.... along the lines of your suggestions are: cabana boy & pool boy. Just a perusing of VT alone, there is trollop (which is the noun I searched on), which produced: fornicatress; hussy; jade; strumpet; loose woman and jade. Boy toy, cabana boy and beach boy (one that I had never heard before), produced nada. Kind of inequitable on a lot of levels, eh, VT??
Thursday July 26th 2012, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Patricia S. (Morristown, NJ, NJ)
Hmmm...profligate, rake, libertine, rounder, debauchee. Mostly described as a usually being a man who is morally unrestrained.
Thursday July 26th 2012, 1:33 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
By extension, one might consider the fact of an actual physiological DIFFERENCE between men and women. Would this be beyond reason? And from that to the definition of "marriage" as to the fundamental meaning of the term to the majority of people?
Therefore, it is not that the woman in inferior in any manner, but IS a different animal. Is that so difficult?
Thursday July 26th 2012, 2:39 PM
Comment by: Janet D.
Gigalo - was that the word someone was looking for in an earlier post for casual paid male partner?
Friday July 27th 2012, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
On the other end of the spectrum, consider words for the sexually undesirable. Men = loser, 40-yr.-old-virgin. Women= hog.
Friday July 27th 2012, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Hog, really? I've never heard that one. Have I not been paying attention, or did you mean dog?
Sunday July 29th 2012, 9:21 PM
Comment by: Shoib S.
I'd like to ask a question from every one here, the all stuff being discussd about the supression of womens, is it the result of dominance of male or the weakness of female?
Monday July 30th 2012, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Shoib S:
Your question begs the answer.
"Dominance" is the word in question.
Isn't there a more appropriate word?
Like, "subjucation"?
Tuesday July 31st 2012, 12:43 AM
Comment by: Shoib S.
Bingo! Subjucation is most appropriate, but still i'd like an answer for my questn,
what cause the supression of women(even langualy) dominance of male or subjucation of female.
Tuesday July 31st 2012, 12:48 AM
Comment by: Shoib S.
I should rather say, subjugation of male.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Girls, Uninterrupted
Do our linguistic patterns reveal entrenched sexism in our society?
"Man Up" Gets Political
How "man up" turned into a key catchphrase of American political discourse.
Dennis Baron reports on the failed history of the gender-neutral pronoun in English.
Is it time to find a new word to refer to one's romantic partner?