-ess

-ess
-ess
1. This suffix forms nouns denoting female persons or animals, and was adopted in Middle English from the Old French form -esse (from late Latin -issa). The first wave of -ess words in English (countess, duchess, empress, hostess, mistress, princess, etc.) were all imported in their entirety from French. From this beginning, -ess rapidly became an active suffix added to words that already existed in English, e.g. Jewess (14c, Wyclif), patroness (15c), poetess (16c, Tyndale); and it supplanted the older native female suffix -ster, which now survives only in spinster. These words were formed by substituting -ess for -er in words such as adulterer / adulteress, or by adding -ess to the stem of words such as author / authoress. In some cases, a feminine form predated a corresponding masculine form; for example, sorceress (14c, Chaucer) is attested before sorcerer (1526, Tyndale). Some words required modification or refinement, producing (for example) governess in place of the earlier governeresse and ambassadress instead of the (unrecorded) alternative ambassadoress.
2. The OED records over 100 words in -ess formed from Middle English to about 1850, some merely fanciful or now obsolete (e.g. entertainess, farmeress, vicaress) but others still in regular use (e.g. ambassadress, heiress, mayoress).
3. In the 20c, the feminist and politically correct movements have had a devastating effect on the fortunes of many -ess words, and have effectively brought the life of -ess as an active suffix to an end. Those regarded as especially offensive are (on racial grounds) Jewess and Negress, and (on gender grounds) occupational terms such as actress, air hostess, authoress, manageress, poetess, proprietress, stewardess, waitress, all of which have yielded to gender-neutral alternatives, either the traditional masculine forms (actor, author, manager, poet, proprietor, waiter) or specially devised forms (flight attendant, waitperson). Other words continue unchallenged, among them abbess, adulteress, adventuress, ambassadress, duchess, goddess, governess, heiress, murderess, postmistress, princess, songstress. Some of these are unalterable titles, others are not simply female equivalents of the masculine form (e.g. an ambassadress is the wife of an ambassador; a mayoress is the wife of a mayor, and in both cases a female office-holder would be called by the -or forms), and others are encountered too rarely (or only in special contexts such as fiction) to cause disquiet.
4. A further limitation on the use of many -ess forms is that they cannot be followed by of to identify them in relation to a work or achievement; instead of the authoress of Persuasion you have to say the author of Persuasion. It is possible, however, to say the goddess of love, in which of plays a somewhat different role.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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