February 9, 2008

What to Call Her

NPR carried a report yesterday of another school shooting, this one at a Baton Rouge vocational school. The reporter rather clumsily explained that the “gunman” in this instance was female. As gender roles in society continue to blur, more obscure holes in our language are exposed.

If a man wielding a gun is a “gunman,” should not a woman in the same role be a “gunwoman”? One would think so, but this is not a standard word, and it seems not only unfamiliar, but clumsy. “Gunman” is short and powerful in a way that “gunwoman” is not. “Shooter” might have been a better word to use, though I suspect that, even in the mind of a confirmed feminist, this does not immediately conjure up a Bonnie Parker.

My first thought upon hearing the report, was that the proper term was “gun moll,” but that actually means something else, usually a (male) criminal’s girlfriend. Bonnie was actually more than just a gun moll to Clyde Barrow. And were Clyde just a pretty boy along for the ride, we wouldn’t have had a name for him either.

What should we call Latina Williams, the 23-year-old who shot two female students before using the gun on herself? I will offer some suggestions, though each one is defective in one way or another; some might be considered quite objectionable. I write them as phrases, but the phrases could be combined into single words: “gun girl,” “gun maid,” “gun gal,” “gun bitch,” “gun dame,” “gun lady,” “gun lass,” “gun babe,” “gun broad,” “gun chick,” “gun doll,” “gun she,” or, most improbably, “gun frail.” Most of these terms rely on slang terms and seem no better than “gunwoman.” Perhaps “gun she” (“gunshe”?) has most potential in this group, though I’m probably being influenced by the familiarity of “banshee.” “Gunlass” might work, if the accent is on the first syllable. Another approach might be using a standard suffix for a female actor. We could balance “shooter” with “shooteress,” “killer” with “killeress.” Somewhat more fancifully, we might coin the term “gunneress.”

Of course, we could write off “gunman” as sexist—like “mailman”—and use “gunperson,” providing the sex of the miscreant more directly, as in the phrase “female gunperson.” I’m not personally keen on this approach, actually. Any other ideas?

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