Who’s a Masseuse?

November 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.”

Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. Hostess and even actress seem to be going the way of authoress and poetess a century or more ago.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names.  Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago.

I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s masseuse. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of masseuse and the decline of masseur.

Of course, the trends might reflect a change in subjects rather than language – more stories about women practitioners. So I Googled “male masseuse” and got 160,000 pages, led by Yelp’s listing of “Best Male Masseuse in New York.” And in 2015, Maxim magazine (here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.

Just in case I had any doubts that masseuse had become the ungendered term, at about the same time Maxim ran that interview, we got the word from a far more widely-read authority on linguistic trends – The Jumble.

* The more durable -ess forms include royalty  (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).

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