The XX Factor

What Should a Yeoman’s Mistress Call Herself Now?

Members of the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii on December 7, 2015.

Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Amid nationwide conversations about pronouns that challenge English’s gender binary, two historically dogmatic American institutions are grappling with gender-neutral language at the granular level. The editors of the AP Stylebook announced on Saturday that the word mistress is no longer kosher to describe a female party to an extramarital affair, and the U.S. military has mounted a search for a nongendered alternative to yeoman, a centuries-old sailing term.

The move away from mistress is a welcome modicum of progress from the style czars at the AP, who rarely draw praise for their gender politics. Stylebook guidelines still demand that writers employ binary gendered suffixes in terms like spokesman and chairwoman, rather than eliminating gender from the picture altogether by using spokesperson or chair. Even the New Yorker, hardly a haven for copy-desk reconstructivism, was using spokesperson as far back as the ‘70s; and in recent decades, spokesperson has fast supplanted spokeswoman as authors’ non-male noun of choice.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But mistress is one of those words that was expressly developed to identify a woman—originally, a female teacher or loved one, and eventually, a paramour or sex worker. There is no equivalent term for the male lover of a married woman, nor for a married man with a secret female lover (formerly mistress) on the side. In practice, that means that women in illicit relationships bear the brunt of the blame for any damage the relationship wreaks. She’s a seductive interloper who breaks up marriages; her male counterpart is just a plain ol’ man who happened to earn the affections of a married woman. For that reason, the AP now recommends “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship,” as in “The two were romantically (or sexually) involved.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

If writers must refer to one particular party to the affair, the AP suggests the gender-neutral terms friendcompanion, or lover. The former seems ripe for confusion; even terms like girlfriend and boyfriend mean different things to people of different generations and cultural backgrounds. But companion is a glorious euphemism that evokes the image of a fabulously wealthy elderly woman subsidizing her taut, tanned companion’s first-class cruise to Barbados—in other words, a gender-neutral mistress. Lover is less colorful but more sexual, with a flair for the dramatic and a natural affinity for soap-opera scores. Both are evocative and poetic; mistress will not be missed.

Advertisement

Yeoman is another story. The New York Times reports that, since the Department of Defense struck down regulations barring women from combat roles, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus tasked his underlings with renaming positions titled for male soldiers. Apparently, dozens of job titles in the Navy and Marine Corps end in man, including rifleman, mineman, and assault man. Those can easily morph into gender-neutral terms like rifle technician and mine specialist to reflect the military’s gender-desegregated reality. But yeoman, a time-honored term for enlisted sailors in clerical and administrative roles, isn’t easily separated into base and suffix. Yeo doesn’t mean a thing without its man.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

All due props to the military for modifying its terms to be gender-neutral rather than multiplying the intricacies of its byzantine jargonese by assigning dual gender suffixes to each term, á la yeowoman and yeoman, or spokeswoman and spokesman. But the Navy’s master chief petty officer, Michael D. Stevens, who’s in charge of the yeoman renaming initiative, has exhibited limited creative capacity. “You can’t have yeo-specialist or yeo-technician, right? Yeo-person? There is no such thing.” he told the Times.

Well, Stevens, there was once no such thing as the simultaneously redundant and contradictory master chief petty officer, either—and frankly, the military has never been known for intuitive, user-friendly lingo. Yeoperson would probably do just fine. One Slate writer suggested the Navy instate the term yeobro, which is a neat rhyme but solves precisely nothing. I would humbly submit the possible title of yeodministrative technician or just yeodministrator, pronounced with a yad- or a yode- as the first syllable. I may not be a military spokesmistress, but I know a good opening for a portmanteau when I see one.

Advertisement