How to say this?

Here’s the situation: you have a man who made something of a career of helping others, especially kids (president of the father’s club at his son’s elementary school, pack master for a scout troop), but also counseling women who are victims of abuse. How do you refer to this role?

If this were a woman, the fixed expression would be the metaphorical mother hen — like a hen clucking over and caring for her chicks. But there’s no easy way to transfer this image to a man, simply because male chickens (roosters, cocks) don’t exhibit these behaviors.

This is not a theoretical question. It came up in the (San Francisco Peninsula) Daily Post coverage (on October 16) of the death of Charles Bolt, who did indeed fill this role for many years in the city of Burlingame, where he was a familiar figure.

In fact, Bolt was known (according to the paper) as the “father hen of Burlingame” — an expression that just lives with the gender conflict between father and hen, or else involves a metonymic extension of hen to refer to the role rather than the sex of the chicken, or perhaps involves a semantic broadening of hen to cover chickens in general. But easily understood in any case.


2 Responses to “How to say this?”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    The other week I was looking for a feminine version of “avuncular” for a woman it would have suited well, and eventually settled on “mother hen”. The vocabulary gap works both ways, as your post illustrates.


    • John Baker Says:

      Well, there is a feminine version of “avuncular”: it’s “materteral,” but it’s never really caught on; the OED calls it “humorous” and “rare.” There seems to be something of a demand for a word meaning “auntly,” but I don’t know if “materteral” can overcome the barriers of its own rarity and non-intuitive form.

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