Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like chairman/chair(person), spokesman/woman/person, and fireman/firefighter.
Other items crop up less often: one such is henchman. That it’s relatively rare even in the niche of sexism in language is evidenced by its omission from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, which includes a fairly thorough thesaurus (the Hs include handyman, heiress, heroine, horseman/woman, hostess, housewife/husband, huntress, and husbandman).
A henchman is a (typically criminal or amoral) kind of subordinate or “hired muscle”, which I encountered much more often as a child – in comics, children’s TV programmes and the like. These cartoonish henchmen were mostly men, for mostly cultural reasons, but there’s no reason not to have a gender-neutral alternative term.
And that’s where henchperson comes in. I saw the word today in its plural form henchpersons (better than henchpeople?) in China Miéville’s darkly comic cephalopod-cult apocalypse romp Kraken. I forgot to record the passage before reading on, but the context isn’t necessary here; it’s all about the word.
If henchman is not exactly everyday fare, then henchperson is even less so. Dictionary aggregator OneLook offers over 30 definitions of henchman, three of henchwoman and just one of henchperson: Collins’s “loyal supporter, follower, or subordinate”. Wiktionary has a threadbare page, and the word has yet to be favourited or listed on Wordnik. Google gives me <10k hits, another rough indication of its obscurity.
Scarce it may be, but henchperson is an admirable oddity. Not only does it avoid the potentially sexist implications of henchman, it also sidesteps the narrow female–male dichotomy in which the language largely trades. So if you’re in that line of work and you don’t identify automatically as a man or woman, henchperson gives you latitude.
By the way: If you’re wondering about hench, it has to do with horses. The OED says henchman comes from Middle English henxtman (later henshman et al.): a squire or horse groom to someone of rank. Hengest meant “horse” in Old English and has cognates in several modern Germanic languages, for example German Hengst “stallion”.
And for what it’s worth, Wikipedia’s page is quite interesting and includes a list of henchmen (“occasionally henchlings“) in pop culture. Though whether Butters or Darth Vader would appreciate the nod is debatable.