Epicene Meaning

Epicene: Academy Awards
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(1) In traditional English grammar, an epicene noun is one that can refer to either sex without changing its form, such as student, teacher, and president. Also called common gender.

(2) Similarly, an epicene name is a proper name (such as Tracy) that can be used by a person regardless of his or her sex. Also called a unisex name

(3) An epicene pronoun is a gender-neutral pronoun (such as they), which is also known as a generic pronoun.

In 1692, in his Short Introduction of Grammar, Thomas Bennet wrote, "That which is called the Epicene Gender, is either Masculine or Feminine... and is to be looked upon by the Grammarians as having no sex."

Examples and Observations

  • "Children are protected as human beings under global human rights instruments, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (Charli Carpenter, Forgetting Children Born of War. Columbia University Press, 2010)
  • "Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other." (Benjamin Franklin)
  • "Both the disaster films and the airplane comedies support the idea of a distinct airline culture with a clear hierarchy and division of labor; men are pilots and women are flight attendants."
    (Carney Maley, "Bonding in the Air." Bound by Love, ed. by Laura Mattoon D’Amore, 2011)
  • "Highly effective teachers tend to reflect  a strong trust in students. They usually believe that students want to learn, and they assume, until proven otherwise, that they can." (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2011)
  • "Jamie and Leslie were married a few months later; they remained a couple for almost a year." (Marvin Korman, In My Father's Bakery. Red Rock, 2003) 

False Generics

"It is conflating male humanity with humanity generally that permits what Black and Coward 1981 dub 'false generics,' where there is no pronoun but the clear implication is that what would seem to be a clear case of an epicene noun is being used as if its referents were all (adult) males.

Here's an example, adapted from an anthropological essay:

The villagers all left, leaving us behind with the women and children.

Variants of this example have been widely discussed, and there are many similar cases where even though the language used looks gender-neutral, the message conveyed is not."

(Sally McConnell-Ginet, "Gender and Its Relation to Sex: The Myth of 'Natural' Gender."The Expression of Gender, ed. by Greville G. Corbett. Walter de Gruyter, 2014)

Epicene Pronouns in English

"[A]ll the plural pronouns, the first and second person singular pronouns, the relative pronouns who and that, and the indefinite pronouns, such as everyone and somebody, are said to be epicene."

(K. G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993)

Invented Epicene Pronouns

"The increased interest in language and sex over the past two decades has produced quite a few epicene pronouns, but the lack of such a pronoun in English has been of concern to grammarians and word coiners for some 200 years. The first epicene pronouns were coined not to redeem women from a condition of lexical obscurity but to restore linguistic efficiency and grammatical correctness to language.

In all, more than 80 bisexual pronouns--little words such as ne, ter, thon, heer, et, and ip--have been proposed since the 18th century, and because many word coiners worked in isolation and received little publicity, some of the same forms were invented more than once, most notably versions of the blends hesh, himer, and hizer."

(Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender. Yale University Press, 1987)

Epicene​ They

"The use of nonsexist pronouns does not arise for ordinary spoken English because most speakers of American English use they rather than he as the epicene or indefinite pronoun, as in Somebody left their book on the desk. But in formal writing the use of they to refer to a single person is generally considered 'incorrect' from a prescriptive standpoint. Prescriptivists hold that the use of epicene they replaces grammatical correctness with political correctness.

But some feminists (women and men alike) are proponents of the use of indefinite they even in written formal contexts; they point out that the form has a long and respectable history and is found in earlier stages of the English language, along with he or she."

(Mary Bucholtz, "Language, Gender, and Sexuality." Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Further Reading

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Nordquist, Richard. "Epicene Meaning." ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/epicene-nouns-and-pronouns-1690657. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 21). Epicene Meaning. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/epicene-nouns-and-pronouns-1690657 Nordquist, Richard. "Epicene Meaning." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/epicene-nouns-and-pronouns-1690657 (accessed December 12, 2017).