A while back, a friend complained about people who referred to a man as a blonde: blonde is a French word, my friend said, and in French it can be used only for women. So He’s a blonde is a vulgar error. (Similarly for brunette.)

But we’re talking about English here, not quoting from French, so there’s no reason why English has to be used as if it were French. And there are good reasons not to use it that way, though the matter is very complex indeed.

1. Spelling. In English, the issue is entirely a matter of spelling, which is not the case in French. In English, the spellings BLOND and BLONDE are homophones; ditto for BRUNET and BRUNETTE. But in French the paired spellings represent distinct pronunciations.

2. Grammatical gender vs. sex. The system my friend recommends for English — one that’s also prescribed in some dictionaries — is one based on the sex of the referent: BLONDE used for reference to a woman, BLOND for reference to a man. That would make it like ACTRESS vs. ACTOR in English (with the complication that there are contexts in which ACTOR is sex-neutral).

But French is different. The difference is a matter of the grammatical gender of linguistic units, lexical items or word-forms. Confusingly, the technical terms used for grammatical gender are feminine and masculine, though the association with sex is complex and indirect. Lexical items referring to inanimate objects have a grammatical gender: table ‘table’ is feminine (une table), avion ‘plane’ is masculine (un avion). Some lexical items referring to human beings also have an intrinsic grammatical gender, regardless of the sex of the referent: personne ‘person’ is feminine (une personne), even referring to male persons, bébé ‘baby’ is masculine (un bébé), even referring to female babies. (Other elements in sentences — articles, modifying adjectives, predicates — change their form to agree in grammatical gender.)

So, in French, it’s

Cette / *Ce  personne est blonde / *blond ‘That/This person is blond-haired’ (even if the person is a man)

*Cette / Ce  bébé est *blonde / blond ‘That/This baby is blond-haired’ (even if the baby is a girl)

It’s hard to imagine such a system being carried over into English.

3. Some history and usage. From OED2 under blonde | blond (the dictionary treats the spellings as equal variants):

In English used by Caxton (in form blounde); reintroduced from modern French in 17th cent., and still sometimes treated as French, as to be written without final e when applied to a man, especially substantively, a blonde; in North America commonly written blond like the French masculine, but in Britain the form blonde is now preferred in all senses.

On the semantics, with a few examples:

adj. Properly (of the hair): Of a light golden brown, light auburn; but commonly used in sense of light-coloured, ‘fair’, as opposed to ‘dark’, or ‘brunette’, and extended to the complexion of those who have hair of this colour.

[first cite] 1481   Myrrour of Worlde (Caxton) ii. xvii. 103   The rayes of the sonne make the heer of a man abourne or blounde.

[note later cite] 1683   J. Evelyn Mem. (1857) II. 192   Prince George of Denmark..had the Danish countenance, blonde.

noun A person with blond hair; one with light or ‘fair’ hair and the corresponding complexion; esp. a woman, in which case spelt blonde. [first cite 1822]

The hair color, from Wikipedia:

Blond or blonde (see below), or fair hair, is a hair color characterized by low levels of the dark pigment eumelanin. The resultant visible hue depends on various factors, but always has some sort of yellowish color. The color can be from the very pale blond (caused by a patchy, scarce distribution of pigment) to reddish “strawberry” blond colors or golden-brownish (“sandy”) blond colors (the latter with more eumelanin).

4. The NOAD2 story. A dictionary treatment more recent than OED2, with more complexity. NOAD2 treats blond as the default spelling, but lists blonde as a variant:

adjective  (of hair) fair or pale yellow: short-cropped blond hair | her hair was dyed blond.

– (of a person) having hair of a fair or pale yellow color: a slim blond woman.

– (of a person) having fair hair and a light complexion (especially when regarded as a racial characteristic).

– (of wood or another substance) light in color or tone: a New York office full of blond wood. [AMZ: also used for lager beer]

noun  a person with fair hair and skin.

5. Actual usage shows considerable variation. There appears to be some pressure to adopt a single spelling for all purposes. If you do this on the basis of the frequency of the spellings in your experience, you’ll probably go for blonde: references to women’s hair color seem to be more frequent than references to men’s, and there’s also the common blonde used for reference to a color of wood. (On the other hand, blond is shorter and looks “less foreign”.)

The tendency shows up in (raw) ghits: for blonde wood vs. blond wood, 308k over 208k (no surprise), and even for He’s a blonde over He’s a blond, 298k over 125k.

(And usage for the rarer brunette and brunet seems not to parallel blonde vs. blond in detail.)

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