Gender troubles 2: emeriti faculty

Item 2 from Chris Laning, who came across the following in a piece of “bureaucratic prose describing the benefits of being a faculty member emeritus”. (It’s in a draft text, so I’m concealing the name of the university in question.)

As a [University X] emeriti faculty, you are eligible for …

Laning saw this, probably correctly, as an attempt to achieve a sex-neutral term, choosing neither emeritus nor emerita. But it clanged in her ear.

I’ve been in this territory before, on the English alumn- words (here), and much of what I said in the earlier posting carries over to the English emerit- words.

For indicating grammatical gender, masculine vs. feminine (which for these words is tied to sex) and number, singular vs. plural, Latin has four forms. For Latin ēmerit- (originally ‘that has served his time (said of a soldier)’) in the nominative case:

masc sg ēmeritus; masc pl ēmeritī
fem sg ēmerita; fem pl ēmeritae

That was Latin. In English, according to OED2, emeritus is an adjective meaning

Honourably discharged from service; chiefly in mod.L. phrase emeritus professor, the title given to a university professor who has retired from the office.

(with citations from 1794 on) and also a noun denoting someone who has been so discharged.

Some notes on the syntax of emeritus. OED2 has both adnominal and predicative (“be/become emeritus”) examples, and all of its adnominal cites have the adjective following the noun, reproducing the normal word order of Latin. But it’s easy to find examples of emeritus professor, with the adjective in its normal position in English.

OED2 doesn’t treat English emeritus as sex-marked, but then all its cites refer to men. In fact, you can find tons of examples of emeritus referring to women, as in

Professor Freda Adler received her BA in sociology, her MA in criminology, and her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University. (link)

and some female-referring examples of emeritus with nouns other than professor, as in

She is secretary emeritus of Oklahoma Publishing Co. and is on its board. (link)

At some point the masculine associations of  -us in English words from Latin moved some people to partially Latinize English by creating an English adjective (and noun) emerita. Emerita has made it into the OED (draft entry of March 2005, with cites from 1842 on, including instances of both Professor Emerita and Emerita Professor), NOAD2, and AHD4.

The current Wikipedia entry for emeritus notes that emerita

is often used as the female equivalent, although avoided by purists, since phrases such as professor emerita are ungrammatical in Latin.

This is because the Latin noun professor is masculine in gender. But the English noun professor has no grammatical gender. In English, the noun professor has an ordinary English plural, professors, not one taken directly from Latin, and it doesn’t vary in form according to syntactic function (as subject, direct object, and so on), the way Latin nouns do.

Apparently, some people think that professor emeritus is a Latin expression embedded in English, as a kind of quotation, rather than an expression of English (composed of the absolutely ordinary English noun professor and an English adjective emeritus, which has the somewhat unusual, but not unprecedented, property of being able to occur after the noun it modifies).

Treating professor emeritus as an expression of English, with an English adjective emeritus in it, predicts (correctly) that the adjective can occur with nouns other than professor and allows for the option of regularizing the word order to emeritus professor. It would also allow for professor emeritus and emeritus professor to be used of women, and for plurals professors emeritus and emeritus professors, which can refer to groups with women in them; all of these possibilities are attested, in fairly large numbers.

But if you see the adjective emeritus as suggesting reference to a man, and just one man, you’ll be inclined to borrow more of the Latin paradigm. One route is to use emeriti for sex-neutral reference to groups, in professors emeriti and emeriti professors (both attested in substantial numbers). Another is to constrain the adjective emeriti to reference to groups of men, in which case some other tactic has to be used to refer to groups of mixed sex. Such a tactic will depend on borrowing the form emeritae for reference to groups of women, as in professors emeritae and emeritae professors. (Once you start Latinizing English, things get out of hand quickly.)

So then we get explicit coordinations: professors emeriti and emeritae, professors emeritae and emeriti, emeriti and emeritae professors, emeritae and emeriti professors (all attested). Or implicit coordination via “slashed” spellings: professors emeriti/emeritae, professors emeriti/ae, and so on.

How, then, do we get to an emeriti faculty (member)? Possibly by the same route that led people to singular alumni, as in “I am an alumni of Princeton” (via the complexities of pronouncing the Latin endings -i and -ae in English, as explained in my “distinguished alum” posting), or possibly by the direct influence of this use of alumni.

Emeritus and emerita also have uses as nouns, with plurals emeriti and emeritae (or emeritas), respectively. But emeriti sometimes gets used as a singular, like alumni. From the Western Michigan University Emeriti News:

The Council has been informed that WMU has received an anonymous donation by an emeriti to the Emeriti Medallion Scholar Fund. (link)

Elsewhere on this site there are straightforwardly plural uses of the noun emeriti.

Alum(n) as a sex-neutral alternative to alumnus/alumna has been around in U.S. colloquial usage since 1910 (according to the OED‘s draft entry of March 2004), but a parallel emerit seems not to have emerged in modern times, so we’re pretty much stuck with the emerit- words.

Chris Laning is uncomfortable with singular emeriti, as am I. We both would prefer emeritus for all singular uses of the adjective (and noun), but I suppose that if you want to be conspicuously non-sexist, the bureaucratic prose could have been framed as

As a [University X] emerita or emeritus faculty, you are eligible for …

(Laning notes that elsewhere in the document “academic staff member emeritus” passes without comment.)

2 Responses to “Gender troubles 2: emeriti faculty”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    There is no UK equivalent of “alumnus”; if you’re not a graduate you have to circumlocute.

  2. catchwordinfodesign Says:

    Hey, I added that bit to Wikipedia. Does this make me famous?

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