Waiter, Waitress, Server: What's the Correct Term?

Posted on 07 Oct 2012 03:11

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Unless you've been under a rock for a while, you know that you are no longer supposed to call a female waiter a waitress. However, at the same time, hardly anyone refers to a female server as a waiter, and most restaurants are using the term server for both male and female employees: "Hi, I'm Shelley, and I'll be your server today."

Why Don't We Say Waitress Anymore?

First of all, for the whys and wherefores. Waitress has went the way of many gender biased terms in English that are seen as sexist. There have always been lots of biased terms in English, and not only sexist ones, racist ones as well. Black history, anyone? But hold your horses, English didn't invent the practice. It's used in many other languages.

Marked and Unmarked Terms

To understand all this, we need a little lesson in linguistics. Linguists refer to words as being marked or unmarked. Unmarked words are the normal or base versions of words. Waiter is such a word. So is steward and host. Just like we used to call female waiters waitresses, we also used to say actress and hostess. It seems harmless to many people. After all, a waiter is a male server. A female wouldn't want to be called a male, would she? Well, there is more to it than that.

Sure, when we say waiter, we are thinking of he, and not she. But those types of terms are also part of a larger group of unmarked terms that are neutral, and as I said before normal. This is very important to our understanding. Putting the -ress on the end "marks" the basic version, so as to set it apart from the "normal" version. What we really are saying is that these are activities that are normally done by a man, and marked forms generally designate female activities. In reality, although we think of it this way, the root form was never meant to be gender-specific, we just made it that way by creating a marked version. Nowadays, since we largely reject such gender distinction, we have started to abolish such language and we prefer gender neutral terms for occupations.

So females who act are called actors, not actresses, and we don't say comedienne; we say comedian or comic. In both these cases, the normal unmarked form came to be used. In other instances, this wouldn't work. For instance, barman and barmaid became bartender. This makes sense. And, apologies to Angie Dickinson, but if her show were on today, it would have to have a different name, unless you think "Police Officer" would make a good name for a TV show. Again, we couldn't have started calling female police officers policemen.

waitress taking order in restaurant

This female server taking an order can quite appropriately be called a waiter, or a server.
Image by Alan Light via FlickrImage Credit

Firefighter replaced fireman, as women began to enter that service, and again, this makes sense. But when there does exist a perfectly good base or gender-neutral form, why don't we use it? It is because of the reason I stated above, we often do not understand that these forms are gender neutral and well-meaning people or organizations, often governments, invent or substitute new terms.

Creating Gender Neutral Terms

The steward versus stewardess fiasco actually does make a bit of sense. Airlines used to exclusively reserve the job for women. Not only that, but they didn't try to hide the fact that they were looking for young and attractive women. Even the advertisements made this clear. In the 1971 case Diaz versus Pan American World Airways, the Supreme Court ruled that the airline's refusal to hire men was illegal and thereafter more and more men began to be hired. Women flight attendants, who had heretofore been referred to as stewardesses, would probably have been a bit shocked to suddenly be called stewards, since there had never been any men and the term had never been used, although it existed from ocean going ships and was indeed a perfectly acceptable neutral form. The profession could have probably adapted to the title. However, the neutral seeming term flight attendant was invented and the word stewardess has since all but disappeared.

What we can see is that there has been a desire to create gender-neutral terms even when there really was no need to create them, the base forms already being gender-neutral, and only having the connotation of "maleness" because they were given that by our male-centric society or by the profession traditionally being a male one.

What About Waitron or Waitperson?

Fortunately the ridiculous attempt at a gender neutral term for waiter, waitron wasn't heard much past the 1980's and pretty much died out, although it is still seen in books used by authors who are perhaps too concerned with offending a reader or two.

It has been suggested that waitron actually began as a pejorative term and that the -on suffix was borrowed from automaton to suggest that waiting tables was a mindless, repetitive and almost robotic activity. Nothing could be further from the truth so it is just as well that this ridiculous attempt did not catch on. It was never widely used, except perhaps among restaurant kitchen staff of a nasty disposition.

Waitperson, like waitron, is of 1970's to '80s vintage, and was never widely adopted. It is a bit cumbersome and I can't imagine anybody using it in casual conversation.

Which To Use? Waiter or Sever?

But what you may be wondering is which, between waiter and server, is OK. In reality, either is perfectly fine because both can be used as a gender-neutral form. They are neutral, as I have stated, linguistically. Waiter, because of the association of the job historically with males, hasn't been seen as gender-neutral, but we are well past such concerns today. A Twitter conversation reminded me of the word cashier. We have never attempted a female-marked word for cashier and we have no trouble thinking of a cashier as a male or a female, simply because the job has never been distinctly associated with either sex (clerk may be a different story). Waiter, if its history had been different, could have evolved culturally to be gender neutral just as cashier did.

The word server was widely adapted in restaurants, for the reasons stated above, perhaps out of confusion or perhaps because people couldn't shake the association of waiter with male. It seems that many people actually thought that the words waiter and waitress were deemed insulting or demeaning to servers. This makes little sense in retrospect, since the word server can be seen as little different, but many of these changes in language come about without the public actually understanding, at large, why they are happening. We simply take on the new forms slowly, and adapt. However, it is perfectly fine to refer to a female server as waiter, and if you do, and one gets offended, you can explain to her what you have read here!

Forget Newspeak

No, this has nothing to do with "newspeak," which is a term pseudo-intellectuals like to use for any language that is deemed "politically correct" because they think it makes them sound smart, educated, and tuned in. (Note to self: Be careful of the word "pseudo-intellectual" as it is the word most often used by pseudo-intellectuals!) Newspeak was a made-up language in George Orwell's book, 1984 and the idea behind it was to make it impossible for citizens to express dissent or to commit a "thoughtcrime." Language evolves and certain redundant or superfluous language will fall away naturally as society evolves. Newspeak is done intentionally to influence not only what people say, but what they think. While this can be used for evil or manipulative purposes, if you use the term waiter, it does no harm to you or anyone else.

It has long been true that both federal and state laws prohibit any reference to sex, race, color, creed, national origin, age, etc. in relation to hiring. Thus, if a restaurant was hiring servers, they were not supposed to, for instance, put up a sign saying "Waitress wanted" but instead a sign reading "waiter/waitress" or "server."

Many people think that language is simply a reflection of how society works, but others hold, as I do, that language is a basic means of constructing AND maintaining that societal structure. This is why people seek to change the social constructs of language they are opposed to. They recognize that to change the language can change the very underpinnings of societal norms. Whether you like it or not, such change is paramount for continued evolution of society.

It should be mentioned, though, that just because people adopt and use gender neutral terms, or even accept that waiter can mean male or female, does not mean that those using the terms have actually changed their attitudes toward gender equality.

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