Monday, March 4, 2013

"-ess" bend: the curious resurgence of 'authoress'

Louise Bolotin took issue with me about the decline of the word 'actress'. I argued that actors and actresses perform distinct roles and so it's not unreasonable for them to have different titles. Read her counter-argument here.

I contrasted it with the word 'authoress', thinking that this pointless and patronising word had almost disappeared. Type 'authoress' into Google and, sure enough, you get 700,000 results, while a search for 'author' returns 2.3 billion results. Even though there are about as many female authors as male ones, the generic term outnumbers the female term by over 3,000 to one. 

So I ran an n-gram on the word 'authoress', just to confirm its demise. Sure enough, use of the word declined by 94% from its peak in the mid-19th Century to the year 2000 (which is where the n-gram graph stops by default). 

But then I took the date range out to 2008, which is as late as n-grams go, and guess what? The word is undergoing a resurgence. If the n-grams are to be believed (and they're not totally reliable), use of the word 'authoress' has more than doubled since the turn of the century and the word is more popular now than it has been for 30 years. Its rise is more than twice as fast as its earlier decline. At this rate, it will be more popular than ever by about 2020.

What's going on here? The only information I can find on the web is from the blog of "authoress" Venus de Mileage (no, really), who defends her use of it here. She also describes herself as a villainess. Every other page I looked at confidently asserted that the word 'authoress' is archaic and no longer used, even though the only available evidence points the other way.

With such scanty information to go on, I can only speculate, based on the observation that Ms de Mileage's website has an overwhelmingly black colour scheme. This makes me think of the Gothic renaissance in literature, which has made a millionaire(-ess?) of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. While vampires have become steadily more popular since the 1960s, the n-gram shows a more interesting phenomenon that mirrors the fortunes of authoress: the return of the archaic spelling 'vampyre':
There's a spooky similarity between the Vampyre and Authoress n-grams, even down to the mini-revival in the late 1920s. Clearly, writers are finding inspiration and a ready market in a genre closely associated with the 19th Century, and signal this by their use of appropriately archaic terms. Maybe this explains the return of 'authoress'.

Moral: Some words die; others become undead.

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