Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Female

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Female

Article excerpt

'More deadly than the male,' said my husband archly. He was knowingly quoting Kipling, though I don't know why he should, since Kipling was not fashionable when he was young.

His cue was a remark he overheard from an academic former colleague puzzled by the frequency of female in student essays, where woman might have been expected. This usage is said to be 'now commonly avoided by good writers, except with contemptuous implication', said the Oxford English Dictionary in 1895, when it got round to considering words beginning with F. It had not always been depreciative, for, more than 600 years ago, with no intention of being rude, old John Wyclif wrote (echoing the reference to the end of the world in Matthew 24: 41): 'Two femalis shulen be grynding at a queerne.'

By the nature of things, female was often contrasted with male . 'Saturne did onely eate up his male-children, not his females,' remarked a strange clergyman called John Gaule in the whirling words of his Mag-astro-mancer of 1652, a tract against astrological divination. It is not that the word female is male with a prefix tacked on to it. Male comes from Latin masculus , itself a combination of the diminutive suffix -culus and the noun mas , of unknown origin. …

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