Week eighty-eight: ANCRESS (probability 12763), by David Sutton

An ANCRESS (or ANCHORESS) is a female anchorite, one who, usually for religious reasons, elects to live in seclusion. ANCHORITES, by the way, have nothing to do with anchors: the word derives from the Greek ana, apart, and choreein, to withdraw, whereas anchor goes back to the Greek ankos, a bend.

Female forms are fairly unfashionable these days, even politically incorrect, and rightly so: what is the point of applying gender labels to occupations to which gender has no particular relevance? Thus words like DOCTRESS, POETESS, PAINTRESS and PHILOSOPHESS would probably now be applied only in a jocular way, and carry definite suggestions of a male put-down, though for some reason this does not seem to apply to ACTRESS. But all these feminine forms remain, of course, in the lexicon: often to the confusion of males who are not quite sure whether to speak of an ALUMNA, an AFICIONADA, a BISHOPESS, a CATERESS, a CHAUFFEUSE, a CHOIRGIRL, a COMMERE, an ORATRESS etc is to be correct or to be offensive. One is probably on safer ground with DRUIDESS, DEMONESS and DRAGONESS, but then again you never know. Avoidance, except in the context of Scrabble, is probably the best policy. And it is probably best not to reward a fine play by one's female opponent with a cry of ATTAGIRL!


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