Lexis 25: Gender and the Lexicon

Gender and the Lexicon

Gender is a complex notion, encompassing multiple meanings and interpretations, whether linguistic (i.e. lexical and grammatical), political, or ideological (broadly construed as a range of perceptions and representations that justify linguistic practices). It is a crucial area for negotiating power issues within language and discourse, as “language ideologies are [...] much more than simple attitudes towards language – they describe, rationalise, and shape it.” (Coady [2020]). The current debates on the value and motivation of gender within language have thus highlighted deep divisions, both among researchers and within society at large, revealing ideological foundations, which are investigated by various fields such as gender studies, linguistics and translation studies.

Sex and gender have long been confused in grammar books, reflecting a classification system that links grammatical gender and a so-called “natural” gender. Yet there is reason to question the “[...] linguistic usefulness of the category of gender, [...] at first sight completely devoid of function and without logical motivation” (Violi [1987: 20])1. Indeed, gender, as a grammatical category, is less prominent in some languages: French, German, Russian, Spanish or Hindi (languages with a grammatical gender) differ from English or Scandinavian languages, which have a natural gender that distinguishes between masculine, feminine and neuter. They also differ from languages with an unmarked gender such as Finnish, Turkish, Persian, Chinese or Bantu, in which nouns and pronouns have no grammatical gender (Stahlberg et al. [2007: 164-166]). Regarding the English language, Larreya & Rivière [2010: 153] explain: “Usually, in English – unlike in French – gender is natural, i.e. the grammatical alternation of gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) matches the physical distinction of sex (male, female) or absence of sex.” These extralinguistic parameters are also described by Lapaire & Rotgé [1991: 217] as having become fundamental, in contemporary English, for “assigning masculine, feminine and neuter labels [based on] the ‘natural’ opposition between animate and inanimate, and, within the animate category, on the distinction between human and non-human, masculine and feminine.” The consequences are mainly syntactic, pertaining to the selection of personal pronouns or related possessive determiners (Chuquet & Paillard [1989: 65] for example), even if the system of gender agreement between pronouns and their antecedents is not always strictly binding (Gardelle [2012; 2016]).

In English, nominal gender is marked morphologically, especially through affixation: Tournier [2004: 53] lists “feminine suffixes, such as -ess, -ette, -trix...”, through which the feminine operates as a derivative of the masculine, the former being secondary to the latter. Mignot adds the -ine and the less common -a, -ia and -en suffixes to the list (Mignot [2017: 70; 227]). This morphological derivation, which can be found in other languages such as Spanish, Greek or Russian, may imply an underlying form of devaluation that has also been noted by sociolinguists (Holmes & Wilson [2017: 348]): “The male form is the unmarked form, and therefore [...] implicitly the norm.” Tournier underlines the limits of this categorisation for affixes, which leads to increased “dubious [...] or approximate labelling”; in addition, these depreciative characteristics can be strengthened by their polysemy: the -ette suffix, he states, can be used for diminutives (kitchenette), imitations (flannelette), as well as feminine forms [2004: 54]. The potential derogatory connotations of these semantic categories may then influence each other in discourse, marking, at the very least, an asymmetry between masculine and feminine terms, due to those “minimizing suffixes” (Mignot [2017: 70]).

Besides, if the feminine of actor is actress, why are nouns such as director or doctor considered epicene and then require an adjective (female director) or an additional noun (woman or lady doctor) to be turned into feminine forms? Huart [1989: 30] has analysed this process:

To get to ‘woman doctor’, one starts from the class of ‘doctors’, within which a subclass of doctors, who belong to the female sex, is formed. Identifying is thus not the same as establishing an equivalence, in which the word order would be irrelevant – in language, there is always a locator and a located term. [...] When we say: She’s a woman doctor, that doctor is singled out as a type of doctor who is not quite like the others.

Compounding, which is very productive in English, therefore raises questions of the same semantic order as affixation, even regarding the choice of locator and located terms: why is barmaid the feminine form of barman, whereas policewoman is the feminine form of policeman? The question of the motivation underlying this type of compounds also comes up in the case of gendered neologisms (Foubert & Lemmens [2018]). The following topics may be addressed: linguistic and discursive strategies implemented to transform language in order to eradicate identified sexist biases (Chevalier et al. [2017]; Gardelle [2019]), and, outside of official normative terminologies and policies, the question of neologisms, which sometimes stem from activism, and which may enjoy a wider circulation as they become more popular. Some terms have become popular, such as ‘bartender’, which neutralises the opposition between ‘bartender’ and ‘barmaid’, ‘spokesperson’, which includes both ‘spokesman’ and ‘spokeswoman’, and ‘server’, in lieu of ‘waiter’ or ‘waitress’. This leads to specific challenges in translation: while “spokesperson” is indeed epicene, the French language does not provide any satisfactory solution for referring to bar and restaurant staff without resorting to gendered terms or periphrases. From a comparative and/or translational perspective (Raguet [2008]; Flotow et al. [2021]), the mechanisms involved in translating gender from English into other languages may be investigated. The potential shifts from one gender to another (neuter to masculine/feminine and vice versa – exemplified, for instance, in the French controversies around the gender to be attributed to the English loanword COVID), or de-gendering and/or inclusive writing strategies may also be studied. Metaphorical gender may also be considered, such as the feminine gender assigned to ships in English, and the way in which these genders are preserved or may change from one era to another (Curzan [2003]), or from one language to another: for example, the metaphorical gender of fork/knife in English (Cameron [1992: 82]) translates into the same grammatical gender in French (fork is construed as a metaphorical feminine and knife as a metaphorical masculine), unlike salt in the salt/pepper dichotomy [ibid.: salt is metaphorically associated with the feminine in English]). This leads to a whole variety of situations highlighting the “trouble” (Butler [1990]) generated by the very definition of gender.

The categories and discourses inherent to the idea of a gendered lexicon may also be deconstructed: could it be possible, then, to move away from gender through the lexicon? Researchers in queer linguistics and sociolinguistics, for instance, aim to expose “how linguistic practices reflect, reproduce and validate the heteronormative order” (Leap [2013: 643]), by analysing the lexicon used for gendering and de-gendering. To circumvent these mechanisms, existing terms can be used, and neologisms can appear to develop a non-binary lexicon (they/them/themself, or the rarer ze/zir, fae/faer or Mx), which can bring about diachronic or synchronic studies in order to identify the ways in which they have been formed. On the other hand, language can rejuvenate terms that have been out of use to emphasize their gender (Simon [1996] brings back to life the nouns ‘translatress’ and ‘translatrix’).

Another dimension of gendered lexis deals with its connotative and metaphorical dimensions, the negative connotations of which can be studied, for instance, in collocations and extensions of their semantic fields. These effects are explored by Antoine [2014] for the metaphorisation of the female sex, Antoine [2021] on the designation of lesbianism or the expressions relating to menstruation, by Holmes & Wilson [2017: 347] about animal or food imagery in the description of women and men, or by Chamberlain [1988] for gendered metaphors applied to the lexicon of translation. Other promising fields of investigation include proverbial expressions, frozen phrases and/or de-fixation strategies, taboo words (Crespo-Fernàndez [2019]), slang terms, swear words (Azzaro [2019]), and even, in lexicography, the selection of dictionary examples, which may reveal the stereotypes conveyed by language. The Collins Cobuild Advanced Dictionary (2009), for instance, offers the following examples for ‘nurse’: “She has spent 29 years as a nurse” for the nominal form and, for the verbal form, “All the years he was sick my mother had nursed him” and “She rushed home to nurse her daughter back to health.” The profession and the burden of care are thus presented as exclusively female, even though its definition, “A nurse is a person whose job is to care for people who are ill”, is tentative enough to avoid any mention of gender. As for its figurative meaning, sentences such as “Jane still nurses the pain of rejection” and “He had nursed an ambition to lead his own big orchestra” clearly assign pain and resentment, i.e. negative emotions, to the female subject, and ambition, a rewarding quality, to the male person.

This issue of Lexis thus welcomes contributions, either theoretical articles or case studies, on issues relating to the construction of grammatical gender in lexicology (morphology, morpho-syntax, semantics) and lexicography, as well as to the semantic and ideological significance of gender systems in English or various other languages, as long as they include a comparative and/or translational approach with English.

Articles may address the following topics:

  • Gender and the lexicon from a diachronic perspective: without a language standard-setting institution (an equivalent to the Académie française), how has gender been lexicalised (or not) in the history of the English language?

  • Gender, the lexicon and sociolinguistics; gendered variations and appropriations in sociolects, dialectal variations of gender

  • Sex and gender in the lexicon, ‘biological’, ‘natural’ and ‘metaphorical’ gender

  • Naming gender: creation of gendered or de-gendered lexical varieties/neologisms

  • ‘Bad gender’: stereotypes linked with gendered lexis, euphemisms and dysphemisms, slang applied to gendered lexis

  • The lexicon as a vehicle for gendered stylistics: images, metaphors and figures of speech, set phrases

  • Strategies for circumventing gender: epicene terms, neologisms, euphemisms and what happens to them (fashion effects?)

  • Gendered or de-gendered rewriting in translation; misappropriation and invisibilisation of gender; linguistic strategies for naming gender, gender dysphoria, non-binary persons

  • Gender in dictionaries, glossaries and thesauri

  • The lexicon and human rights in the field of gender, designations, affirmations and circumventions of gender in legal and administrative texts, institutional discourse, media productions

The list above is by no means exhaustive; the present call for papers invites researchers to study the ways in which gender is expressed in the lexicon from an inter/transdisciplinary perspective. All theoretical frameworks are welcome, and papers may be written in English or French. Analyses may draw on morphology, semantics, phonology, sociolinguistics, stylistics, lexicography and translation studies, among others. Case studies may apply to fictional or non-fictional texts and utterances.


Antoine, Fabrice. 2014. “Argots, métaphore et ‘effet de loupe’.” Lexis 8. https://doi.org/10.4000/lexis.311

Antoine, Fabrice. 2021. “Les séries ludiques en argot et en langue familière : saut métaphorique et rebond.” Lexis 17. https://doi.org/10.4000/lexis.5090

Azzaro, Gabriele. 2019. “Taboo language in books, films, and the media.” In The Oxford Book of Taboo Words and Language, édité par Keith Allan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bodine, Ann. 1975. “Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They,’ Sex-Indefinite ‘He,’ and ‘He or She’.” Language in Society 4(2): 129-146. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4166805

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Londres/New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith. 2005 (1990). Trouble dans le Genre. Le féminisme et la subversion de l’identité, trad. Kraus, Cynthia. Paris: La Découverte.

Cameron, Deborah. 1992 (1985). Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Houndsmill, Basingstoke & London: Macmillan.

Chamberlain, Lori. 1988. “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1(3): 454-472.

Chamberlain, Lori. 2020. “Genre et discours métaphoriques sur la traduction.” Trad. Saïdi, Samantha. GLAD, Traductologies féministes 9. http://journals.openedition.org/glad/2057

Chevalier, Yannick, Constantin de Chanay, Hugues & Gardelle, Laure. 2017. “Bases linguistiques de l’émancipation : système anglais, système français.” Mots. Les langages du politique. https://doi.org/10.4000/mots.22620

Chuquet, Hélène & Paillard, Michel. 1989 (1987). Approche linguistique des problèmes de traduction anglais-français. Paris: Ophrys, 65-67.

Coady, Ann. 2020. “Jardin à la française ou parc à l’anglaise ? Les idéologies linguistiques : des freins au langage non sexiste.” Cahiers du genre 69. https://doi.org/10.3917/cdge.069.0059

Crespo-Fernàndez, Eliecer. 2019. “Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality.” In The Oxford Book of Taboo Words and Language, édité par Keith Allan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curzan, Anne. 2003. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, Penelope & Sally, McConnel-Ginet. 2003. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flotow, Luise von, Solberg, Ida Hove & Lessinger, Enora. 2021. “Laughing at “normality”: Gerd Brantenberg’s Egalias døtre in translation.” Lexis 17. https://doi.org/10.4000/lexis.5429

Foubert, Océane & Lemmens, Maarten. 2018. “Gender-biased neologisms: the case of man-X.” Lexis 12. https://doi.org/10.4000/lexis.2453

Gardelle, Laure. 2012. “Pronominal gender in references to animals.” Anglophonia/Sigma 16 (32). https://doi.org/10.4000/anglophonia.127

Gardelle, Laure. 2016. “An epistemological approach to English gender: a grammar-based perspective.” In English Studies from Archives to Prospects, Vol.2: Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, édité par Irena Zovko Dinković & Jelena Mihaljević Djigunović. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2-18.

Gardelle, Laure. 2019. “Écriture inclusive et genre : quelles contraintes systémiques et cognitives à l’intervention sur une catégorie grammaticale et lexicale ? Étude comparée anglais-français.” Le Discours et la Langue Revue de linguistique française et d’analyse du discours 11(1): 151-187.

Holmes, Janet & Wilson, Nick. 2017. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 5e éd. Londres/New York: Routledge.

Hord, Levi C. R. 2016. “Bucking the Linguistic Binary: Gender Neutral Language in English, Swedish, French and German.” Western Papers in Linguistics/Cahiers Linguistiques de Western 3(1). https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/wpl_clw/vol3/iss1/4

Huart, Ruth. 1989. “Nouveau regard sur les noms composés.” In Explorations en linguistique anglaise, édité par Gauthier André. Berne: Peter Lang, 25-90.

Lakoff, Robin. 1973. “Language and Woman’s Place.” Language in Society 2.1: 45-79.

Lapaire, Jean-Rémi & Rotgé, Wilfrid. 1991. Linguistique et grammaire de l’anglais, 2e éd. Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Mirail.

Larreya, Paul & Rivière, Claude. 2010. Grammaire explicative de l’anglais, 4e éd. Paris: Pearson.

Leap, William L. 2013. “Commentary II: Queering Language and Normativity.” Discourse & Society 24(5): 643-48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24441617

Mignot, Élise. 2017. La morphologie du nom en anglais, vers une sémantique des parties du discours, dossier en vue de l’habilitation à diriger des recherches. Paris: Sorbonne Université, tel-03788602.

Mills, Sara. 2004. Feminist stylistics. Londres/New York: Routledge.

Motschenbacher, Heiko & Stegu, Martin. 2013. “Introduction: Queer linguistic approaches to discourse.” Discourse & Society 24(5): 519-535. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24441610

Norri, Juhani. 2019. “Gender in Dictionary Definitions: A Comparison of Five Learner’s Dictionaries and Their Different Editions.” English Studies 100(7): 866-890. https://doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2019.1604014

Raguet, Christine (dir.). 2008. “Traduire le genre grammatical, un enjeu linguistique et/ou politique ?” Palimpsestes 21. https://doi.org/10.4000/palimpsestes.62

Shread, Carolyn. 2022. “Translating the Emergence of the Point Médian, or Clitoridian Anarchy in the Text.” In Malabou, Catherine, Pleasure Erased: The Clitoris Unthought, trad. Shread Carolyn. Cambridge/Hoboken: Polity Press, ix-xvi.

Simon, Sherry. 1996. Gender in Translation. Londres/New York: Routledge.

Simon, Sherry. 2023. Le Genre en traduction, trad. Oster, Corinne. Arras: Artois Presses Université.

Sinclair, John (ed.). 2009 (1987). Collins Cobuild Advanced Dictionary, 6e éd. Boston/Glasgow: Heinle-Harper Collins.

Stahlberg, Dagmar, Braun, Friederike, Irmen, Lisa & Sczesny, Sabine. 2007. “Representation of the Sexes in Language.” In Social Communication, édité par Klaus Fiedler. Londres/New York: Routledge, 163-187.

Tournier, Jean. 2004. Précis de lexicologie anglaise. Paris: Ellipses.

Violi, Patrizia. 1987. “Les origines du genre grammatical.” Langages 85: 15-34. https://www.persee.fr/doc/lgge_0458-726x_1987_num_21_85_1526

Xiaoran, Li. 2022. “Gender Differences and Discrimination in Lexicon.” Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research 673, Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Language, Art and Cultural Exchange (ICLACE 2022): 620-623. https://doi.org/10.2991/assehr.k.220706.117

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