The difference between ‘blond’ and ‘blonde’ you might not expect

April 27, 2015

Many languages give gender to their nouns, but not English, though that was not always the case. Until about the 1200s, English had masculine and feminine nouns, the way French, Spanish, Italian, and German still do.

We still have some holdovers, however, at least two of them related to hair coloring. But, as in so many things English, we’re not really sure how to use them.

Hair the color of corn silk is “blond,” the masculine form, though if that hair is on a woman, she is “a blonde.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage says “blond” is preferred in all senses as an adjective in American English; the Oxford English Dictionary says “in Britain the form blonde is now preferred in all senses.”

The Associated Press Stylebook exhorts: “Use blond as a noun for males and as an adjective for all applications: She has blond hair. Use blonde as a noun for females.” But that’s a distinction seemingly honored more in the breach: Much of the time, we use the feminine “blonde” as both a noun and an adjective, regardless of the sex of the person.

Garner’s warns of the inherent sexism in the distinction, saying “when we see a reference to a blonde (or a blond) we almost always assume it’s a woman. To avoid appearing sexist, it’s best to refrain altogether from using this word as a noun. In fact, some readers will find even the adjective to be sexist when it modifies woman and not hair.”

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That may be going a bit far, especially considering the same is true of someone with dark hair, a “brunette.”

As “blonde” is to “blond,” so is “brunette” to “brunet.” But you’d be hard-pressed to find any male referred to as a “brunet,” or any usage of “brunet” as an adjective.

In reality, “brunette” serves as both masculine and feminine, noun and adjective. Webster’s New World College Dictionary does not mention sex at all in its “brunet” entry, which just says, “having black or dark-brown hair, often along with dark eyes and a dark complexion.” Merriam-Webster makes the distinction almost as an afterthought in its “brunet” entry: “a person having brown or black hair and often a relatively dark complexion—spelled brunet when used of a boy or man and usually brunette when used of a girl or woman.”

When those young “blond/es” and “brunet/tes” go to dances, they run into another formerly gendered noun: “chaperon.”

That’s not a typo. The OED says that “English writers often erroneously spell it chaperone, apparently under the supposition that it requires a feminine termination.”

That “chaperon” is now all but universally spelled “chaperone” gets Garner’s goat.

Chaperone is a variant form apparently misspelled as a result of the (correct) long -o- in the final syllable,” Garner’s says. “In 2003, alas, the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster reversed the positions of chaperon and chaperone, for the first time giving the variant primacy in their W11. The editors of The New Oxford American Dictionary followed suit. And so what had once been a misspelling was then upgraded to a secondary variant that now bids fair to become the established norm.”

But Garner’s is not letting go. “Chaperone” instead of “chaperon” is listed at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning all but “die-hard snoots” accept it.

On this, it appears, Garner’s is its own snoot.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.