[This bracket space has been reserved for a response to QuantumIguana's last and well-reasoned post. At the moment, I have to concentrate on formulating questions for an interview and writing the intro -- all due on Monday -- and it would be too tempting to remain very active on this thread.]
Here's the other reason I wanted to post now: because a few ideas came to me suddenly.
1. I was thinking about VydorScope and others' idea of usage alone driving all grammatical rules. One thing we haven't discussed so far is the idea of levels of language, and that is another place where the de facto steering committee of English has its say. A word might be commonly used in a particular way, but there's another question, too: Will it remain in the vernacular or be accepted at the informal and formal levels?
2. To pdurrant, who mentioned using actor for actress (and other such male-gendered nouns) as an acceptable response to sexism in language:
What's interesting is that, in such cases, people have decided that the least sexist thing to do is to favor the synecdoche of a single gender representing both. Which makes me wonder how correct our perception of sexism in language really is.
The reason that actor strikes many of us as an acceptable compromise might be because there is no hint of subject-verb disagreement, and because -or doesn't have the same gendered charge as him, he and his. Moreover, the -ess form is sometimes taken to be dismissive (which might be part of the reason that -trix and -trice, along with their association with dominance, enjoyed an enthusiastic revival in the '90s).
But if we're willing to defer to the male-specific gender there, then why not in the case of the pronoun he? Could it be we're overreacting to a red herring based on our mistaking secondary associations for the actual intention and function?
Last edited by Prestidigitweeze; 09-01-2012 at 02:09 PM.