You may not need to be too fussy about this, as you’re writing for children, not for a classified ad, but some job titles have come a long way. In the 1970s you could see ‘clerkess’ listed in situations vacant. In the 1980s a writer could be referred to as an ‘authoress’. Phew, we’ve got rid of a lot of gender marking.
How this affects your writing depends on whether you want a ‘controversial’ job name to stand out and beg a question (from your editor or from your reader), or whether you want a gender-neutral updated version. Obviously character-specific job descriptions make sense. Postman Pat, the Demon Headmaster and the Gingerbread Man suit their titles.
Here are some old job names and alternatives to ponder;
Fireman / Firefighter
Policeman / Police Officer
Air Hostess/Stewardess / Flight Attendant
Headmaster/mistress / Head Teacher
Landlord / Proprietor
Chairman / Chair Foreman / Supervisor
Barman/maid / Bartender
Usherette has slipped into history as we all stumble to our seats at the movies in the dark now. Governess has a specific meaning of course, especially for Becky Sharpe, Jane Eyre, Mrs Weston and the narrator in Turn of the Screw...
Another specific job name from history is ‘paintress’. It sounds like, and may have been used as, a patronising description of a female painter, but it also applies to a particular group of talented women. The detailed hand-painting of china in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance at Clarice Cliff’s studio, was done by self-styled paintresses, a name they valued.
|Varnishing Day at the RA - Punch cartoon May 1877 Definitely all painters here, |
and impressive for 1877 that nearly a third are women
Finally there are the job titles where we’re dropping the ‘ess’ form. Waiter now applies to both genders, and so does actor, but there are inconsistencies.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards are for ‘Male Actor in a Leading Role, Female Actor in a Leading Role, Male Actor in a Supporting Role, Female Actor in a Supporting Role, etc. The Oscars are for Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, etc.
On the word ‘actor’, a Guardian article of 2011 admitted that “we are not using the term consistently yet” and the performers' union Equity stated "We don't feel there is a consensus, in fact, the subject divides the profession." Since then ‘actor’ has become the more established description, though there are always context-specific anomalies. When proofreading – be aware.
No Proofreading Tips next month as Words & Pictures features the excellent Advent Calendar. I’ll be back in January with a skill share based on the SCBWI BI Conference Fringe session I’m hosting on ‘What’s in a Name?’
Header Image for Proofreading Tips Courtesy of