Default genders of animals

Several animals have a “default gender” in English — by which I mean that the word for either the male or the female also serves as the word for the species in general. The word man, which can (or could until very recently) mean either a human being in general or specifically a male human being, is an example.

My initial assumption was that, while most animal species do not have a default gender, those that do would be overwhelmingly default-male, in line with traditional “sexism.” In fact, they turn out to be pretty evenly split.

Default-male animals: dog (vs. bitch), fox (vs. vixen), lion (vs. lioness), tiger (vs. tigress), and of course man (vs. woman).

Default-female animals: cow (vs. bull), duck (vs. drake), goose (vs. gander), and hawk (vs. tercel). Interestingly, these are almost all bird species. The only exception is cow, which technically refers only to the female but in practice is used more inclusively.

The above are the only animals I can think of which have a default gender. If you know of one that I missed, leave a comment.

Among mythical creatures, most are default-male — dragon (vs. dragoness), giant (vs. giantess), ogre (vs. ogress), etc. The only exception I can think of is griffin; heraldry distinguishes between the griffin (winged, without horns or spines) and the male griffin (horned, spiny, and wingless). Perhaps not coincidentally, the griffin is a bird-like monster.


Filed under Language

4 responses to “Default genders of animals

  1. The fact that there is no commonly-used sex-inclusive name for the cow/bull animal is very interesting (given that the species is ubiquitous) – and I haven’t seen it satisfactorily explained. My guess is that it is due to the rarity of bulls – since the males generally get eaten before they get to reproduce, and bulls are too dangerous to have more than a few around the place.

    (Incidentally, did you know that the aggressiveness of cows and bulls is broadly ‘reciprocal’ in the breeds – in the sense that the very large beef breeds tend to have placid bulls and somewhat aggressive cows; while the Jersey breed (which has the richest milk) has the gentlest of cows, but extremely dangerous and aggressive bulls (although Jerseys are much smaller and lighter than the beef bulls) – such that among my range of acquaintance the two people I have heard of being killed by a bull were both victims of Jerseys – despite them being such a comparatively rare breed.)

    It was not until my mid-twenties, when I was a scientist and ordering anti-serum for use in lab measurements, that I discovered the ‘official’ name of this animal, which applies to both males and females, is ‘ox’.

    I had previously assumed that oxen were a species of cow/bull (used for pulling loads, rather than eating) but it is apparently the proper sex-inclusive name for cow/bull.

  2. An ox is properly a castrated bull. Using it inclusively is an extension of the original sense, just as with cow. (Etymologically, too, cow derives from words which refer to the species as a whole, whereas ox is descended from words which refer generally to any male animal.)

  3. There is a mass noun–cattle–but frustratingly the only genuine singular is ‘a bovine,’ which is in too high a register for most writing and certainly speech.

    I live out in cow country, more or less. Cattlemen use the term as a ingroup marker. If you refer to ‘cows’ and you aren’t talking about a group of heifers, that marks you as an outsider. In the singular, you don’t need a generic term because you are expected to be able to size up an animal and know whether its a bull, steer, or cow just by eye-balling, or at least, if you are interested enough in an animal to discuss it, you are expected to be interested enough to learn its sex and status.

    I like Charlton’s idea. For most households, historically, for most use cases, the relevant animal would be a milch cow and any males would be incidental to that, either a bull that somebody else owned that you bred your cow to once a year, or the male calves that resulted from the breeding that you may slaughter before they reached their growth, but that if you didn’t, you would probably castrate (de-sex) and butcher after a year or so.

  4. “Cattle” has an interesting history. It originally just meant movable property and is related to “chattel” (as in “goods and chattels”) and “capital” (in the economic sense). Later its meaning was narrowed to just livestock (as in the KJV Bible: “oxen and lesser cattle”), and later still to specifically bovine livestock. I assume this semantic drift was partly influenced by the lack of any suitable sex-inclusive word for bovines. The lexicon abhors a vacuum.

    “Deer” is a somewhat parallel case. It originally referred to any animal, then to any wild animal, and finally only to stags and does. Formerly there was no gender-neutral term for this animal either, though “hart” (properly referring only to the male) was sometimes used loosely in a more inclusive sense, just as “cow” is today. The main difference between “deer” and “cattle” is that the former has a singular form and can be applied to a single animal, whereas the latter is exclusively plural. “Deer” is thus a fully satisfactory word, while “cattle” is still defective.

    In the past, English also lacked a generic term for cocks and hens, and two words rushed in to fill the vacuum: “fowl” (which originally referred to any bird, and which in American English can still be applied to ducks, geese, and turkeys as well as to cocks and hens) and “chicken” (which was originally restricted to the young of the species, a role now filled by the shortened form “chick”).

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