fellow sisters

In the NYT Sunday Review 5/3/15, in “What Black Moms Know” by Yvonda Gault Caviness:

Thankfully, I am a black mom. Like many of my fellow sisters, I don’t have time for all that foolishness [about child-rearing].

I stumbled a bit on fellow sisters, though I understood that it was in no way contradictory; fellow here does not refer to a man or men, but to someone “sharing a particular activity, quality, or condition with someone or something: they urged the troops not to fire on their fellow citizens” (NOAD2). Still, the noun fellow is surely most frequently used for informal reference to a man or boy (there’s a fellow at the door), and this use can interfere with the (gender-neutral) ‘someone sharing an attribute’ use.

Fellow has an interesting history. From NOAD2:

ORIGIN late Old English fēolaga ‘a partner or colleague’ (literally ‘one who lays down money in a joint enterprise’), from Old Norse félagi, from félag ‘partnership’ from ‘cattle, property, money’ + lag ‘a laying down,’ from the Germanic base of lay.

The word quickly radiated from this to an assortment of ‘sharing’ uses, including ‘partner, colleague, co-worker’ from about 1200 on; OED2 notes that this was “less frequently said of women” — something that would follow from the sociability patterns of the sexes.

(In a separate radiation, the word developed a set of uses in a college or university context.)

Patterns of male sociabillity probably account for the development of fellow for use with reference specifically to a man or boy — via uses comparable to buddy, pal, [British slang] mate, [French] compagnon, and the like. According to OED2, such uses begin around 1440 “with qualifying adj., as good, bad, brave, clever, foolish, old, young, etc.” fellow, then “used in familiar address in phrases, my dear fellow, my good fellow …, old fellow” (from 1836 on), and eventually “in some dialects, and in unceremonious colloquial speech (esp. among young men), used without adj. as the ordinary equivalent for ‘man’” (from 1861 on).

The ‘sharing’ uses and the college/university uses continue throughout these developments. It would now not be unreasonable to posit at least three lexical items here. We can now say things like all my fellow Fellows are fellows ‘all those who are Fellows with me are men’.

2 Responses to “fellow sisters”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Julian Lander on Facebook:

    My discomfort with “fellow sisters” is different. Were I the author, I would have gone with the simpler “sisters.” If I say “my fellow Xes,” that implies that I am also an X. But a woman cannot be her own sister in any meaningful sense. I think that “sister” does the job here — people are aware that it does not exclusively mean a family member — because the speaker’s sister is similarly situated to the speaker, so fellow is redundant.

    This is of course sister ‘black woman’ (with some conditions on who can use the word), so I see the point that fellow can be seen as redundant.

  2. James Unger Says:

    In Japanese, _kyoodai_, a Sino-Japanese compound noun literally and originally meaning ‘elder brother + younger brother’, has come to mean ‘siblings’ in general, regardless of relative age or gender. (In fact, I think you can find such usage quite far back.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: