© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Is Hillary Clinton The First Woman Nominee — Or The First Female Nominee?


Let's talk about adjectives and making a particular noun into an adjective. Hillary Clinton is the first female presidential nominee for a major U.S. party - or should that be the first woman nominee?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: First female nominee.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: First woman nominee.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The first female nominee.


DAVID MUIR: The first woman to be a nominee for a major party.

MCEVERS: Deborah Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, and she has been in conversation with other linguists about this. Welcome to the show.

DEBORAH TANNEN: It's my pleasure to be here.

MCEVERS: Let's just start out with, like, a pure grammar rule here. I mean, female is an adjective. Woman is a noun. Does that sort of give us definitive guidance on which one we should use here?

TANNEN: I would say woman used to be a noun, and now it is a noun and also an adjective. And words change their functions in that way. It's one of the most common phenomena about words. They start as one thing, and they end up as something else.

I think it's really important, too, to keep in mind many of us - and often it's the people who love language - will point to a dictionary definition or a grammar rule and say, well, this is how it should be. The meanings of words and the uses of words come from practice from the way people in a given culture use those words.

MCEVERS: So you say first woman presidential nominee of a major political party and not first female?

TANNEN: Yes. I would say first woman.

MCEVERS: You know, there was a time when we called ourselves ladies. When did that stop and how is that not an option now?

TANNEN: I believe the switch from lady to woman was part of the women's movement. Lady was a euphemism for woman and that was one reason that we wanted to move away from it. We didn't like the idea that the very notion of woman somehow was unseemly, and also a lady was someone who spoke and acted in ways that was self-effacing and never strong.

MCEVERS: So as we think about the idea that at some point the women's movement decided we're going to stop using the word lady and we're going to start using the word woman, and now with this sometimes emphasis on the word female, I think a lot of people in feminist circles would say that puts too much emphasis on the biological.

TANNEN: In my own writing, I avoid female and try to say woman because I feel that the word female has connotations of not just biology, but also non-human mammals. The idea of female to me is more appropriate for a female animal.

MCEVERS: You know, I think about words that we don't really say anymore. You don't hear people say stewardess. People say flight attendant. There's a whole conversation about actress versus actor. But in the case of the first female or woman presidential nominee for a major party, the modifier is important, right?

TANNEN: It is important. I don't think the distinction between female and woman is as significant as taking the E-S-S endings off words like actress, stewardess. Those endings created a sense of trivial unimportant, easily dismissed. Would you entrust your life to a doctoress?

I don't think the distinction between female and woman has quite that impact. It's not like moving on from the words girl and the words lady where girl trivialized, lady trivialized. Both of them made the woman being talked about less important, less serious, less worthy of respect.

MCEVERS: So female or woman, either one probably fine?

TANNEN: I think some people are going to prefer female. Some will prefer woman. One will probably rise to the top, and the other will probably go the way of girl and lady. I do prefer woman, but I don't feel that the distinction is as significant as some of the other words that we've left behind.

MCEVERS: That's Deborah Tannen. She is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. Thank you very much for joining us.

TANNEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.