Robert Fisk, whom Language Log describes as “the well-known linguistic paleoconservative,” wrote recently in The Independent about a “trap” he had set for the sub-editors in an article:
I referred to Vita Sackville-West as a "poetess". And sure enough, the sub (or "subess") changed it – as I knew he or she would – to "poet". Aha! Soon as I saw it, I knew I could write this week about the mysterious – not to say mystical – grammar of feminism and political correctness.
He continues in a familiar and tedious rant about the way that feminism and political correctitude are emasculating the English language. Given how often you must have heard that sort of thing, it seems unnecessary to quote further.
But what one might expect even a linguistic paleoconservative to know is that poetess was objectionable long before the reign of terror that political correctitude has imposed on Mr. Fisk. The word suggests a nineteenth-century, oh-look-women-can-rhyme condescension. It’s a word for such writers as Julia A. Moore, “the Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who so amused Mark Twain that he imitated her naive and awkward verses in Huckleberry Finn. I’ll leave open a challenge to find any published female poet of repute in the past half-century who has described herself as a poetess. The corresponding term is not poet but poetaster. Any sub worth his salt would have changed it.
People who write about language ought to demonstrate some understanding of it.
Personal postscript: My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, was the postmaster in Elizaville, Kentucky, for twenty-four years. That’s postmaster, not postmistress. (The Postal Service did not acknowledge sex unless you tried to get it through the mail.) Postmaster was the title the government of the United States gave her, and it was the one she used. Mr. Fisk can be grateful that he did not tangle with her.