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States Are from Venus:

There surely must be a good answer to this somewhere, but I just don't know where — why are states sometimes referred to as feminine? The most common usage of this is "sister state," but I also recall seeing references to states as "she" (albeit in older contexts). Sounds like some sort of literary affectation, but I'm curious just how it came about. Of course there's a similar pattern with regard to ships, but I don't know if there's any connection.

Kovarsky (mail):
"sister" planets too.
2.21.2007 6:05pm
Cornellian (mail):
My guess - the last vestiges of the now long forgotten era when English words still had gender, as German and French still do today.
2.21.2007 6:06pm
RV:
Countries often have gender, too. It is not consistently female, though; sometimes you have a fatherland and sometimes a motherland. But, the United States was a colony of Britain, and Britannia is female. So, it seems logical that we would traditionally follow that convention and hence use the feminine in reference to our states (originally envisioned as closer to independent country/states than mere provinces).
2.21.2007 6:15pm
James Dillon (mail):
I have no idea of the origin, but you don't see it a lot these days (except for "sister state," which persists to some extent). My BarBri lecturer on conflict of laws used such expressions constantly-- always referring to "her laws" or "her interests" when talking about conflicts between state laws. I found that it quickly starts to grate on one's nerves.
2.21.2007 6:18pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
The convention with countries is to say that men would die for them, as with a beloved; and that, rationally, why is not exactly clear but neither is it uncertain.

The convention carries over to states.

Fatherland brings out tradition, motherland brings out love, with countries.
2.21.2007 6:20pm
Waldensian (mail):
The opinions of the Supreme Court of Virginia routinely refer to the Commonwealth as "she," "her," etc.
2.21.2007 6:33pm
Friedrich Foresight:
Hmmm, [1] States and [2] women. Members of one category possess (under Erie Railroad v Tompkins a constitutionally guaranteed and absolute right to conclusively interpret their own past pronouncements, even if an impartial outside observer might construe these quite differently. Whereas the other...
2.21.2007 6:34pm
Caliban Darklock (www):
If the land were male, we would feel funny about raping it.

No, seriously, I think that's the major reasoning.
2.21.2007 6:37pm
Rocinante (mail):
Other than the linguistic conventions (German has gender? I knew the Romance languages did, but not the Germanic ones), I think its' even older than that.

The gender is based on personification, which itself dates back to antiquity. Everything was thought to have a spirit of its' own, not to mention a patron spirit/deity. I imagine the linguistic convention came out of the habit of referring to the ship (or whatever) and its' inner spirit/patron spirit interchangeably.
2.21.2007 6:42pm
advisory opinion:
Convention derived from Latin.
2.21.2007 6:43pm
Malvolio:
It seems like a lot of important inanimate objects are personified as female. States, countries, ships have already been noted, but also nature, the sea, freedom, hurricanes, and the Moon.

My theory is things that are capricious, complex, and willful are designated female, where as things that are more predictable, straightforward, and implacable (time, death, the Sun) are marked as male.

"Swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon that monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable."
2.21.2007 6:44pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Three are sister cities, ( www.sister-cities.org ) and schools (www.sisterschools.org/ ) too.
2.21.2007 6:49pm
The Red Menace (mail):
The only country I have ever heard referred to in the masculine is Germany. Can anyone provide other examples? Or an explanantion as to why the Germans are so...special.
2.21.2007 7:04pm
FoolsMate:
I wonder whether the gender of ships and states is particular to a language. Ships are not universally "she"; the Russians, at least, always call ships "he". I don't know if there is a connection.
2.21.2007 7:05pm
Steven H (mail):
The "fatherland" comes from the Greek "patris." The Greek's definitely thought of land's as belonging to their men.
2.21.2007 7:28pm
Spitzer:
Don't confuse natural gender with grammatical gender. "Natural" gender refers to the physical reality of actually being male, female, or neuter. "Grammatical" gender is merely a convenience, and has no necessary relationship with "natural" gender.

For instance, in latin, natural gender rules express a preference for masculinity. All combinations of people that include even one male are masculine hence, "alumnus, -i" for all-male or coed alums, "alumna,-ae" for female-only alums). But there are "grammatically" feminine or masculine or neuter nouns in Latin as well. This is true for most Indo-European languages (e.g. French, a romance language, refers to cats as female in a grammatical sense, regardless of the feline's actual gender).

But English lost its grammatical gender a long time ago. For those who might be inclined to suggest that "sister" states and such represent vestiges of ancestral tongues, it is worth noting that "nation" in Old English is a grammatically feminine word, as is the sun, while "ship", "native country", "communion" or "fellowship", "moon", and even "maidenhood" are masculine - this list does not seem to comport well with modern usage. As such, it must be surmised that the rise of "sister" states and the like represents some sort of neologism, or new development, in the language. My guess is that it derives from the use of metaphors in early modern English literature, but I am no Shakespeare or Dryden scholar, and so I would hesitate to comment on that. Nevertheless, the likelihood remains that the use of false (or new?) grammatical gender arose fairly recently.
2.21.2007 7:32pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Rocinante:

I don't know about Dutch or the Scandinavian languages, but Modern German still has all three Indo-European genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. A quick look at my Oxford Superlex tells me that Deutschland, Italien, Frankreich, Spanien, England (and Grossbritannien), Russland, and Niederlande are all neuter (the last is plural), perhaps because Land ('country') is neuter. Then again, Heimat ('homeland') is feminine.

I suspect that the feminine countries have more to do with Latin, where most countries are feminine even when they look masculine (like Aegyptus). Offhand, I can think of Brittania, Hispania, Gallia, Germania, Pannonia, Dacia, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Bithynia, lots more. Then again, Pontus (Mithridates' kingdom on the north coast of what is now Turkey) is masculine and Illyricum (one name for the coast of Croatia) is neuter, so there are exceptions.

In Latin, islands are also feminine, including the very many with typically masculine endings (Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Delos, etc.). So are trees, but rivers are masculine. Don't try to make sense of these rules!

Finally, abstract ideas are almost all feminine in Latin and the Romance languages. That is why the blindfolded Justice with the scales in front of the Supreme Court is a woman (Justice is femine) and Liberty leading the people in the French revolutionary recruiting poster is a woman. (The fact that she's bare-breasted no doubt helped with recruiting.) Even in German, if you want to say 'Federal German Republic' it turns feminine: Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland.
2.21.2007 7:49pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Oops! Britannia, not Brittania. In teaching Latin, I find that female students tend to like the idea that Justice (Iustitia) and Wisdom (Sapientia) are feminine, but are disappointed when I tell them that Injustice (Iniuria) and Stupidity (Stultitia) are, too.
2.21.2007 7:52pm
arthur (mail):
Maryland, Virginia, and two Carolinas may have something to do with it.
2.21.2007 8:00pm
arthur (mail):
Maryland, Virginia, and two Carolinas may have something to do with it.
2.21.2007 8:00pm
advisory opinion:
Old English does however seem to comport well with German (die Sonne, der Mond). No surprise there?

. . . it must be surmised that the rise of "sister" states and the like represents some sort of neologism, or new development, in the language.


That these gender affectations generally match those in Latin (Sol masculine, Luna feminine, countries feminine, ships feminine) suggests that they are a cultural legacy of scholastic convention and the widespread use of Latin as a language of learning. 'Learned affectation,' as it were.
2.21.2007 8:03pm
James Fulford (mail):
Countries are also referred to as "she."


We must not forget that from the moment when we declared war on the 3rd September it was always possible for Germany to turn all her Air Force upon this country, together with any other devices of invasion she might conceive, and that France could have done little or nothing to prevent her doing so.


Winston Churchill in the "Finest Hour" speech.

Probably the acme of female personification is in Maryland, My Maryland,


Hark to an exiled son's appeal,
Maryland!
My mother State! to thee I kneel,
Maryland!
For life and death, for woe and weal,
Thy peerless chivalry reveal,
And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,
Maryland! My Maryland!


There's more, in which Maryland is shown to have a blushing cheek as well as "beauteous limbs," and is told "thy dalliance does thee wrong."
2.21.2007 8:05pm
Friedrich Foresight:
> 'Maryland is shown to have a blushing cheek as well as "beauteous limbs," and is told "thy dalliance does thee wrong"...'

My goodness. Doktor Freud, call your office ASAP.
2.21.2007 9:25pm
Peter Shalen (mail):
When I was growing up in the 1950's, it was still a general convention to refer to countries and cities (and presumably states too) in the feminine. I remember two stories. My sixth grade teacher told us that she objected to people's habit of referring to "Russia" (by which she meant the Soviet Union) as "she," presumably because the feminine pronoun implied a complement. My uncle, a New York pol and journalist, explained the architecture of the Guggenheim Museum by saying that New York had never accepted Frank Lloyd Wright's style, and that he had responded, before he died, by "leaving this turd on her doorstep."
2.21.2007 9:28pm
Peter Shalen (mail):
I meant "compliment," not "compliment." Somehow previewing is not the same as reading yourself on the web.
2.21.2007 9:29pm
Malvolio:
Maryland, Virginia, and two Carolinas may have something to do with it.
What about Georgia, Louisiana, and (although this is different) Washington?
2.21.2007 9:31pm
Peter Shalen (mail):
Whne I said "I meant `compliment,' not `compliment,'" I meant to say "I meant `compliment,' not `complement.'" I hope that's clear now, because it's my final offer. And I mean it.
2.21.2007 9:33pm
Peter Shalen (mail):

Maryland, Virginia, and two Carolinas may have something to do with it.What about Georgia, Louisiana, and (although this is different) Washington?

Let's see. The Carolinas are named after King Charles, Georgia is named after King George, Louisiana is named after King Louis, and Washington is clear. The only ones named after women are Maryland (after Bloody Mary) and Virginia (after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Monarch). Of course these are all feminine in form, which was presumably the default.
2.21.2007 9:37pm
Friedrich Foresight:
> "The only ones named after women are Maryland (after Bloody Mary) and Virginia (after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Monarch)."

Interesting. So neither one is actually named after the Virgin Mary, as I'd always assumed?

And I thought Carolina was after Princess Caroline of Brunswick... I bet Ohio wasn't named by Japanese settlers saying "Hello", either. BTW, surely in a nation where Spanish will soon be the second official language, Ohio and Idaho should be masculine while California and Iowa should be feminine?

(Granted, if Obama or Hillary wins president in 2008, so that al-Qaeda takes over the US in 2018 or thereabouts, the States will all get new names like "Caliphornia" and "Allahbama" anyway.)
2.21.2007 9:45pm
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
Res publica? Patria?
2.21.2007 9:45pm
Hei Lun Chan (mail) (www):
Maybe ships are feminine because male captains keep naming them after women?
2.21.2007 10:05pm
Tom Tildrum:
The phenomenon works in the opposite direction. When state names are used as proper names, it's almost always as a woman's name. E.g., Dakota, Florida, Georgia, Montana. On the other hand, only men are ever called "Tex." I plan to call my daughter Little Rhody.
2.21.2007 10:09pm
John A. Fleming (mail):
Ok, I'll try...
States are the place where you were born and raised. The association with mothers is then strong. We often speak of our home state. Next, we might when describing the state, say "her green forests" or "her deep canyons" or "her rolling hills". In those three words (pronoun, adjective, noun) we compactly express both affection for and admiration of a state's features. As compared to "the rolling hills of MyState" (blah, no emotion, too long and awkward), or "his fruited plains" (yech, wierd), or "its waving grasslands" (blah, no personal emotional connection). This is based on an assumption that everybody loves their mom unreservedly. The relationship with fathers? A little more complex.

Finally, as I alluded above, States have charms and delights. Most of her features are beautiful, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties. This is a strong adjectival female association in English, maybe other language/cultures too.

From the association with mothers, the practice of referring to states/nations in the feminine then passes into general usage, so much so that even Churchill, as pointed out above, can't avoid it when referring to an enemy. (Or that could have also been that with all the royal intermarriage between England and Germany in the preceding centuries, there was a residue of affection between them, a family fight between cousins.)

Maybe this practice of referring to States in the feminine is failing now because most of us never stay in one place very long. We don't have a strong memory connection to a place known as Home.
2.21.2007 10:34pm
MarkO (mail):
OK. Now speak to me in Trusts and Estates.
2.21.2007 10:41pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
At least in 17th century American accounts, guns are often "she." This certainly blows out the pseudo-Freudian claim that gun owners own guns because their penises are too small.
2.21.2007 10:45pm
Cornellian (mail):
At least in 17th century American accounts, guns are often "she."

Cf the "Firefly" episode in which Jayne Cobb ("The Man They Called Jayne") offers "Vera" to someone, adding something like "she's been really good to me." "Vera" was a weapon, a machine gun if I recall correctly, or perhaps a semi-automatic.
2.21.2007 10:54pm
Va Med Mal Lawyer (mail):
I think Maryland is named after Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, daughter of Henry IV of France.

I have nothing to offer on the underlying question, however.
2.21.2007 11:04pm
Respondent (mail):
Advisory Opinion,
That the Germanic languages and Latin typically use the same genders for the same words is not a function of "a cultural legacy of scholastic convention and the widespread use of Latin as a language of learning", but simply because of the common Indo-European ancestor!
2.21.2007 11:13pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Random observations here:

I don't think I've ever seen a country/state/nation gendered male in English; even if you were talking about "the fatherland" in some foreign context, you'd say "it" rather than "he" or "him," whereas I've seen the "she" or "her" for nations, states, &c. rather frequently.

I wonder if there is some carry-over from an old convention of giving feminine-gender names to exemplars of national or personal styles. The examples I know mostly involve 17th- and 18th-c. French music, so take this with a heaping tablespoon of salt, but (e.g.) in Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1741 Pièces de clavecin en concerts, we have, inter alia, "La Forqueray," "La Cupis," "La Marais," and (yes) "La Rameau," all the proper names being those of prominent musicians, all male. What's up with that?
2.21.2007 11:51pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Oh, I meant to add, re Kovarsky's opening comment, that we have "sister schools," "sister cities," &c., but no analogous "brothers." Alle Menschen werden Brüder, sure; but evidently Sisterhood really is (metaphorically) Powerful.
2.21.2007 11:55pm
K:
I think it goes into prehistory and earliest man.

Our ancestors could see that plant life came from the earth and waters contained life. And until recent times there was some belief that (at least some) animal life could arise spontaneously.

As thought developed it was clear that people lived only from what the earth provided.
2.22.2007 12:05am
advisory opinion:
Respondent,


That the Germanic languages and Latin typically use the same genders for the same words is not a function of "a cultural legacy of scholastic convention and the widespread use of Latin as a language of learning", but simply because of the common Indo-European ancestor!


Err, that wasn't what I said. I said that Modern English and Latin typically used the same genders for the same words as a result of their shared cultural legacy. I did NOT say that of Germanic languages as a group.

In fact, I pointed out the reversal of genders for the German Sonne and Mond versus the Latin Sol and Luna would seem to support Spitzer's view that gender in Old English does not comport to modern usage in Modern English. Rather, they comport to their Germanic roots and present-day usage in German - supporting the view that English lost its grammatical gender somewhere along the line (hence the difference in word-genders between Modern English and Old English).

And it is this difference that is down to the influence of Latin.

I don't know how you managed to misread me so badly.
2.22.2007 2:01am
Randy R. (mail):
I was taught that Maryland was named after Queen Mary I of England, as it was settled by Catholics, and that if you wanted to think it was named after the virgin Mary, they happy about that as well. Hence the deliberate vagueness worked both catholic ends.

I was also taught that the Carolinas were named after King Charles. Many counties, however, in the central colonies were named after queens, princes and princesses and all other manner of lesser royalty. Not that they really cared, of course....
2.22.2007 2:17am
Splunge (mail):
Okay, just for fun, here's an inverse change that's also interesting: even as little as 50 years ago, and certainly commonly before then, the pronoun used to refer to a child was usually "it", up to some vague age about when you'd stop referring to someone as a "child".

But nowadays, the use of "it" for a child is falling away. If I try it myself (and I am no longer young) I can say "the baby wet its diaper" barely, if the baby is very young and I don't know its sex anyway, but I still have the vague urge to replace "its" with "his". For older children who can talk, I would certainly never use "it".

Why this change? Surely no one could easily argue that our feelings towards children have changed in the last two centuries by so much that, while once they were sexless, now they are not. But then again, I can't think of any other explanation.
2.22.2007 2:35am
Splunge (mail):
On the actual question, I am going to venture the supposition that the usage is related all the way back to early religious personifications, the tribal gods, as it were. My impression of early religions is that the male gods tended to be localized, active agents often represented as humans, animals, or half-animals, while the more passive, background, unlocalized influences on life -- the night, the Earth, the Sea, water -- were more often represented as feminine gods. Perhaps these assignments stem from an infant's first impressions of his (see?) mother's and father's behaviour.

In any event, if that would be the case, we might well continue to assign the feminine to things that are not easily characterized as active, humanoid agents. Things that are largely passive (ships), highly abstract (justice or freedom) or too complex (states and nations) to be readily anthropomorphized.

That doesn't mean we can't, after we have assigned these things a sex, wax metaphorical and poetically link devotion to country to devotion to mother or wife. But I suspect this stuff is post facto exploitation of a false friend, not the reason for the initial assignment.
2.22.2007 2:48am
bigchris1313 (mail):

Cf the "Firefly" episode in which Jayne Cobb ("The Man They Called Jayne") offers "Vera" to someone, adding something like "she's been really good to me." "Vera" was a weapon, a machine gun if I recall correctly, or perhaps a semi-automatic.


IIRC, it appeared to be an assault rifle.
2.22.2007 3:02am
Justice Stevens (mail):
It's the fault of those damn feminists. Damn them.
2.22.2007 3:22am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
The official line is that hurricanes ought to have male names half the time. That's cluelessness at a high level. Women are storm systems.
2.22.2007 6:22am
Houston Lawyer:
More vexing is that American English and British English differ somewhat. The British refer to a Corporation as a plural entity and we refer to it as a singular entity. I believe that there are other areas where we refer to something as an "it" and the British refer to it as a "she".
2.22.2007 10:24am
Spitzer:
Not to be pedantic, but Maryland was not named after Queen Mary I. She was named in honor of Henrietta Maria, the (Spanish Catholic) wife of Charles I. Only Virginia (Elizabeth I) was named after a woman monarch. Carolina (Charles I) and Georgia (George II) were named after male monarchs, and New York was named after the king's brother (who later became king himself).

By the way, isn't "America" itself a feminine construction of Amerigo? That would follow the Latin convention of typically employing feminine constructions with proper names of states (including Roma itself). "Urbs" is feminine, "Res Publica" is also feminine (but that's because "publica" is an adjective that agrees with the noun's gender, and "Res" (thing) is feminine), "gens" (tribe or nation) is feminine (but "populus" (people) is masculine).

The point is that English is a wonderfully bastardized tongue, and though it is not as unique among its neighbors as Latin or modern Japanese, it is infinitely more flexible. Members of the political elite and intellectuals both tend to view English very negatively, however, and so they seek to borrow highfalutin foreign words whenever possible (this may be a cultural remnant of the Norman Conquest) - hence, we eat "pork" (French root) but raise "pigs" (English root), eat "beef" (French root) but raise "cows" (English root), eat "venison" (French root) but hunt "deer" (English root) - the names of the meat (eaten by the aristocrats and their hangers-on) was derived from a foreign tongue, while the name of the animal whose meat was being eaten (raised by lower-class native English speakers) was English. In the Middle Ages, Latin was of course the language of literature, and even as English became more accepted in higher society, the elite continued to borrow foreign words. In that manner, I can only hypothesize that Latin's feminine gendering was borrowed by early modern English writers as an affectation, and the use of the feminine to refer to such items remains (at least in part) an affectation today.

As an aside, it is noteworthy that the cultural preference for highfalutin foreign words has been inverted somewhat in the UK today. The true aristocracy now prefer a more countrified tongue (huntin' shootin' fishin', as they say), the urban elite seek to use only select foreign words in their talk (Latin being a favorite), but it is the middle, and especially lower, classes who overuse foreign words in a vain attempt to give their speech a higher social class than it otherwise deserves ("serviette" instead of "napkin", for instance, or prounouncing "restaurant" in an affected French manner). In America, quite the reverse is still true - it is the political, urban, and intellectual elite who mostly prefer to interject their language with highfalutin foreign words, while the bulk of the citizenry are largely content with their native English (and wonderfully butchering foreign words when it is necessary to use them) while mangling their pronouns in an ever more horrid manner (i.e. the vastly inappropriate use of "myself", and the constant confusion concerning when to use "I" or "me".
2.22.2007 11:06am
RMCACE (mail):
Why Mother Nature? Father Time?
2.22.2007 11:12am
Aultimer:
Spitzer is on the right track. Whether named FOR men or women, states and nations were named BY self-identifying-as-hetero men who loved the land. Hence, feminine states and nations.

Draw your own conclusions about the founders of Mexico (but not Idaho).
2.22.2007 11:52am
Abandon:
Aultimer, as you certainly already know, Mexico was founded by Aztecs, and the name was Tenochtitlan, which, if I recall, is feminine. But knowing that many precolumbian civilizations used to slay virgin girls for the sake of their beliefs, I'll share your conclusions ;-)

Just a few comments her:

Clayton Kramer:

At least in 17th century American accounts, guns are often "she." This certainly blows out the pseudo-Freudian claim that gun owners own guns because their penises are too small.


I don't see why it "blows" out the so called pseudo-Freudian theory. One can easily see weapons as a matter of possession (therefore feminine) while, at the same time, looking at them as an instrument of power (hence the masc. form). In that perspective, guns can be seen as androgynous entities. Material Marilyn Manson, if you wish...

Spitzer:

But there are "grammatically" feminine or masculine or neuter nouns in Latin as well. This is true for most Indo-European languages (e.g. French, a romance language, refers to cats as female in a grammatical sense, regardless of the feline's actual gender).


You are quite right. But if I read you well, the chosen example is wrong. In French, cats are called "chat(s)" (masculine form). The feminine "chatte" refers to a female cat but, in case of gender uncertainty, "chat" is used by default.
2.22.2007 2:04pm
MDJD2B (mail):
Maybe ships are feminine because male captains keep naming them after women?

Most American warships are named after men (USS John Stennis, Hyman Rickover, Nimitz, etc.) but are still called "she."
2.22.2007 2:25pm
Taltos:

Why Mother Nature? Father Time?


I would imagine it's a reference to Gaia and Chronos.
2.22.2007 2:50pm
RV:
Why this change? Surely no one could easily argue that our feelings towards children have changed in the last two centuries by so much that, while once they were sexless, now they are not. But then again, I can't think of any other explanation.

Although in a time when a significant percentage of children died in infancy, I can see why people would have some hesitancy in becoming to attached until the child passed the most dangerous years.

Whether named FOR men or women, states and nations were named BY self-identifying-as-hetero men who loved the land. Hence, feminine states and nations.

I think this is probably the route of it all, regardless of what path it took throughout history to get to our current usage. I and nearly all of my straight female or gay male friends who have named our cars have given them male names or genders while nearly all straight males that I know have given their cars female names/genders.
2.22.2007 3:38pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Abandon,

Just a few comments her:

Now that is the original Freudian [whatsit]. Beautiful.
2.22.2007 3:50pm
Spitzer:
Abandon: quite right. Mea culpa. "Navire" (ship, masculine) or "chemise" (shirt, fem) would have been better choices on my part.
2.22.2007 5:37pm