CICISBEO (plural CICISBEI): “a married woman’s male companion or lover.” — Oxford English Dictionary
Apropos our lastfew articles, we discovered there is a word for “male mistress.” The word is cicisbeo, from the Italian. It doesn’t appear common in the Anglosphere, and even the multiple Italian language pages I found refer to cicisbei only in historical or artistic contexts (from what I could tell. Then again, my Italian comprehension is limited to tiramisu, pianoforte, and Lamborghini.)
According to the Wikipedia article, cicisbei abided by strict codes of social norms, right down to where they positioned themselves at events. The term seems to no longer be in common use, which may be due to reduced acceptance of adultery, the dissolution of the aristocracy, plain old sexism, or all of the above.
The one English language article I found referencing the cicisbeo concept had as its subject “walkers,” male escorts to society events. Since I’m not a regular at debuts and cotillions, I was only vaguely aware of the concept, but as every article I’ve read on the subject points out, women crave manners, neat appearance, and a listening ear. Husbands, fiancés, and boyfriends, take note.
Back in April, we asked if mistress is an offensive word. And if so, is it only because there’s no equally underhanded word for an adulterous man?
Anne, as usual, had a lot to say on the topic:
“Master,” as a noun, came about in the 12th century, according to Merriam-Webster.com, and “mistress” in the 14th. It took somebody a couple hundred years to figure out that sometimes women are in charge OR to decide that they wanted another word.
My take is that “mistress” was the female equivalent of “master” for a long time (mistress of the house, mistress of ceremonies) before the secondary meaning came along. Perhaps it was originally a euphemism. Perhaps there is no male equivalent (as the plus-one who was not invited by the other spouse) because women, married or single, are often not seen as being distracted by sexual urges.
There’s a lot packed in there, and Anne makes several astute observations. Do women take “boy toys” for diversion less frequently than men run to mistresses for succor? Perhaps, but that doesn’t explain why a male analog for mistress wouldn’t have emerged. We have words to describe much rarer things (like silience).
The original Dictionary.com article bore the title “Mistress” And Other Words That Have No Male Counterpart, which got me thinking on asymmetries – pairs of words that should convey equivalent meanings, but don’t. The article mentions bachelor/spinster. Another good example: governor/governess. Whereas mistress has described a woman in charge (and still does – headmistress, props mistress, &c.), I’m not sure governess has ever denoted a female head of state. Comment if I’m wrong.
The Dictionary.com article also mentioned bitch. I looked it up, and where a
female dog is a bitch, a male dog is
a… dog. At least that’s also a put-down,
and one that’s mostly directed at men. Is there a generic English animal name derived
from the female of the species? Yes: cow.*
Here’s another asymmetrical pair: courtier/courtesan. Both words originally described members of the
royal court. But courtesan soon took
on its primary meaning of a prostitute with an upscale clientele. Sometimes a courtesan wasn’t in general circulation –
in those cases, she would be more like a mistress.
And that brings us full circle. To close out this article, I
turn it back over to Anne:
[Mistress] has become pejorative. In related news, I think the word “master” has been touched more by its connection to the time of legal enslavement in this country than “mistress” has. Eventually, as is always true in language, we will devise new terms.
– Otto E. Mezzo
*What do you call a female cat – the counterpart to a tom? Answer next month.
POST-INDUSTRIAL: “Relating to or denoting an economy which no longer relies on heavy industry” – Oxford English Dictionary
What’s good for the environment is not necessarily good for language. Take post-industrial. What does it mean? If you ask marketing people, it refers to a class of recycled materials – namely plastics, paper, textiles, wood, or even metals trimmed off during the manufacturing process which are then recycled into post-industrial material.
The first time I saw that term, I did a double take. When see post-industrial I think of post-industrial economies or post-industrial societies. The word industrial has always carried an air of global abstraction (industrial strength, industrial nations) rather than referring to specific industry-related things. Because of that, I prefer post-manufacture when writing about cast-offs from the manufacturing process. Pre-consumer is also widely accepted.
Post-industrialwaste is a generally accepted term, so I concede it’s a logical hop to post-industrial recycled material. But no standard dictionary I consulted has an entry for it – yet.
Mistress is a problematic word in so many ways. First is in its abbreviation, Mrs. No, I don’t have a problem with women using the title* (nor if they prefer Ms., as my own wife does). But whereas Mr. is pronounced “mister”, Mrs. carries the elided pronunciation “missus”. If you are writing dialog in a script, the general rule is to spell abbreviations, symbols, and numerals out (Elm Street instead of Elm St., sixty-seven dollars instead of $67). How do you do that with Mrs.? Because “missus” is not a word, the generally accepted solution is to simply write Mrs.
Dictionary.com also asks if the very word mistress is offensive or sexist. The site agrees with Huffington Post and the Associated Press that it is:
Referring to someone as a mistress may seem more acceptable if there were a similar term we could apply to men, but there isn’t quite one.
However, we could apply the same logic to why a writer should use the word mistress – because there really isn’t another good word for the person in question. Adulterer, while technically accurate, is too sanctimonious, homewrecker too judgmental, and lover too literary (as Dictionary.com admits). Mistress is a word we all understand to mean “the woman with whom a man has an affair.” I’m not sure the “kept” implication is still there in 2019. But I get the objection. If a woman takes a male lover who’s not her husband, what is he called? Mister or master obviously don’t work. Gigolo has other connotations. Courtier? Consort?
The AP just chucks out the words and suggests you re-write the sentence. But the beauty of English words is how they pack whole thoughts into a short construction of letters. Bezos’ mistress tells you everything you need to know without resorting to the passive “Sanchez and Bezos were romantically involved.” Likewise, actress reads more smoothly than female actor, or actor (female), as I expect the Oscar will one day be renamed. To be clear, I call all my women thespian friends actors. There is no difference between what they do on stage or in front of the camera and what their male castmates do. Actress belongs in the same dustbin as poetess, huntress, and baxter (a female bake-ster). I do have a special place in my heart for editrix, but have never worked up the nerve to call any of my women editors that, since they could fire me. When I was a teenager, waitress was still in common use. After a brief flirtation with waitron, waiter for both men and women seems to have won the day. Except there is that musical on Broadway.
Country folk get a bad rap in the English language (indeed, in most languages). Five months ago, we glanced at the word villain. The word once denoted a farmhand, but now universally refers to the antagonist of a story or a situation. Back in October, I puzzled about why we should equate productive men of the soil with calumny and scheming. After all, none of the great villains of Shakespeare or Virgil are peasants.
As it turns out, we can chalk up the journey from rural hired hand to malefactor to garden-variety classism. Workers bound to a villa (plantation) were considered rough and unmannered, especially compared with knights and squires. Indeed, villeins formed an official social class in feudal Europe, much as peóns did in colonial Latin America. Since hayseeds couldn’t tell a dinner fork from an oyster fork, and also since they knew nothing of courtly manners, they must be to blame for crimes most foul, at least in the minds of the nobility. Hence, villain, the bad guy/gal.
Two other English words also make the leap from “country rube” to “disagreeable person,” meaning-wise. Boor means “farmer,” and comes from the same Germanic root that gave us the Dutch boer. And like villain, the word assumes a certain lack of refinement — in fact, that is the very definition of boor in modern English. Churls were one rung above the villeins, being free farmers rather than serfs, but all that means is they got off the hook for murder, theft, and world domination. Instead, their coarse ways gave us the adjective churlish and the noun churl, an ill-tempered, rude person. I’d rather have world domination.
Lest we let the upper classes off the hook too easily, the words bourgeois and bourgeoisie came to describe the middle and upper-middle classes. It acquired its perjorative connotation of vain materialism during the French revolution, when it was well-earned. Karl Marx hammered the final nails in the coffin of bourgeois respectability, at least in common-use English.
Interestingly, both bourgeois (think burgher) and villain are words which etymologically suggest “city dweller.” So I guess the agrarians get their linguistic revenge in the end, proving that an Arkansas toothpick beats an oyster fork any day.
MAN: “1. An adult human male; 2. A human being of either
sex; a person.”
WOMAN: “An adult human female”
– Oxford English
Lexicide’s mailbox is often stuffed with myths, mishearings,
and misapprehensions. One of the most common misunderstandings we get involves
the origins and usage of man and woman.
First things first: woman
does not mean “from man (a male person).” That folk etymology comes from
And Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (King James Version)
In Hebrew, the words for woman and man (אִשָּׁה ishah and אִיש ish) might carry this relationship,
although there is considerable debate about that. In English, however, the
origins of the words man and woman are clearly recorded. Woman comes from Old English wifmann, meaning “female person”, and man comes from Old English mann, meaning… “person.”
If you’re wondering why Old English was so sexist as to use
the same word for “human” and “male”, well, it wasn’t. The male counterpart to
a wifmann was a wermann, wer* being a
cognate of the Latin vir, meaning
strength or power (as in a virile triumvirate).
Wif gave us the obvious “wife” and meant…
Okay, so maybe Old English had a male-centric bent. I had
heard once that wif was related to weave (women presumably doing much
of the warping and woofing), but current scholarship no longer favors that
connection. Women were meant to be
wives and wermen were meant to have
power. Hey, no one said pre-Enlightenment Anglophones were enlightened.
For modern English writers, the question arises: is it okay
to use man as a stand-in for all
people? The situation is complicated by our rich treasury of man quotations:
For man also knoweth not his time… (Ecclesiastes 9:12, KJV)
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… (John Donne)
Man is the cruelest animal. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
I could go on. Proponents of gender-neutral language would urge us to use
person, humanity or humankind in place of man, and I certainly grant that when it
works, go for it. But in other instances, might sometimes man be the right word?
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)
Setting aside the fact we don’t
mess with Shakespeare’s words, would this monologue be improved if it were “What
a piece of work is humanity”?
What about Neil Armstrong’s famous utterance? Would it have had the same
power if he’d said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for humankind”?
Those are good questions. But most of us are not Shakespeare, Donne, or Armstrong. For that matter, most of us won’t ever address the human condition in a brochure or web page. If we do, we have the option to craft phrases which are inclusive and poetic at the same time – at least until the client changes them.
– Otto E. Mezzo
*Wer survives today
in only one modern English word: werewolf
Back in October, I asked what one called residents of Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Atlantic City, etc. This is because Reader Eddie suggested they should be Citizens, as in Oklahoma Citizens, and so on. As is typical of my readership, I got a lot of smart-alecky responses to my serious inquiry (“Okies, Mormons, vagrants”) but no sober, informed data.
Rummaging through the list, you’ll find someone from Carson City is a Carsonite (since the city was founded on silver mines, I find the mineral-oriented “ite” suffix appropriate). A Kansas City resident is a Kansas Citian (blech). Oklahoma City is home to Oklahoma Cityans (double blech), and SLC supports its population of Salt Lakers. Atlantic City is not relevant enough to be on this list, apparently.
A couple of interesting demonyms show their colors here. I did not know people from Buenos Aires are Porteños. Ho Chi Minh City dwellers still call themselves Saigoners or Saigonese, and if you hail from Mexico City, you are thankfully not a Mexico Cityan, but a Capitalino.
And sorry, Eddie. The uniform demonym for ville (Nashville, Louisville, even Seville) is villian, not villain.
Rétrospectif is directly equivalent
to the English retrospective (“looking
back”), so that etymology makes sense. I wondered, however, if rétrograde carries the same negative color as its English counterpart.
Here’s where I consulted with French teacher Erin, who in turn contacted one of
her French amis. She replied: “C’est négatif et obscurantiste.”
There aren’t many words we don’t know at Lexicide, but obscurantist (in English) definitely drove us to the dictionary. (Obscurantism is “the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known,” according to Oxford.) So oui, rétrograde is just as much of an insult in the francosphere as it is the anglosphere.
Reader Andy also commented
on retrograde and retro:
It’s funny how “retro” has become a word unto itself. It’s not merely a descriptive prefix, or an abbreviation for “retrograde,” but it seems to specifically refer to style or design, and it carries a positive (or at least nostalgic) connotation.
It’s also oddly specific. Nobody would refer to Conestoga wagons or Gregorian chant as “retro,” though they come from earlier times. It seems to me that “retro” refers to the zeitgeist of Americana in the 1950s through perhaps the 1980s, though I expect this will expand as the population ages. “Retro” needs to have occurred within living memory and needs to have been part of a pop-culture movement that has definitely ended, AND has since been re-imagined or mythologized.