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Grammatical Gender and the Epicene (Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi)

Not all languages have grammatical gender (English is one such language), which means that the declension of nouns and pronouns does not depend on gender the way, for instance, it does in Latin or Russian. The typical trio of masculine, feminine, and neuter gender determines how words vary in the several grammatical cases, but there is a category, called epicene, which embraces both masculine and feminine biological sex. This means that a word like L bovis means ox, bull, and cow simultaneously, just as R sirota ‘orphan’ can be applied to both males and females while being declensionally feminine.

Speaking of Latin, Y-H-B remembers how his father used to quote a phrase in censoring someone’s impermissible behavior that is not much heard these days, viz., Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi (‘What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for an ox’). Since bovis is epicene, it does especially good service in this geflügeltes Wort by invoking an animal that can be of either gender, and by transference either a male or a female human referent.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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