Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Noun : Men :: Adjective : Women

Cruising through the Star Tribune a few days ago, I found this photo of a Grand Prix bike race.

Black and white newspaper clipping of a bunch of serious-looking bicyclists in a race
And the cutline said:

Close up of the caption, which begins Women elite riders raced 28 laps...
That construction -- "Women elite riders" -- made me stumble. Shouldn't it be elite women riders? I wondered.

But then I thought, How would it sound if they were men? "Men elite riders." "Elite men riders."

Neither one sounded right.

I realized I am unaccustomed to men being used as an adjective, while I often hear women used that way. Men is generally a noun. Women, of course, is a noun also, but too often it's a modifier applied to another noun, such as "women basketball players" or "women astronauts," which would otherwise be assumed to be men.

Female (and male) are more clearly adjectives, although they can also be nouns. When there's a profession or role that's usually associated with women, male seems to be the more usual adjective. ("Male nurse" would be the key example. Although I believe that phrase is frowned upon by nurses.)

It's odd that using the term female before nouns like basketball players or astronauts makes the terms sound more clinical or classifying, rather than descriptive of some specific women who are basketball players or astronauts.

Have you heard phrases that use men as an adjective, but sound natural to you? Is this just my idiosyncracy of the ear?

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I'd agree -- "men" sounds odd as an adjective. These kinds of questions were in the air a while ago in relation to the phrase "woman candidate": no one would say "man candidate." On the other hand, it's common in literary studies to refer to "women writers." "Female writers" would sound odd and, as you say, clinical. Gender inequities seem written into our language use.

I remember as a kid hearing men and women talk about "lady drivers" (not golf clubs -- women at the wheel).