Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, 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.

china mieville - kraken book coverAnd that’s where henchperson comes in. I saw the word today in its plural form henchpersons 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. (The same novel also uses the progressive reflexive pronoun themself.)

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 under 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.


33 Responses to Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

  1. stuartnz says:

    My vote would definitely go to henchling – not only does it scan better, it also carries the entirely appropriate connotation of underling, or, given the low esteem in which the ancient art of henching is held, stooge.

  2. Margaret says:

    There’s an entry in The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage by Rosalie Maggio suggesting the following alternatives: ‘sidekick, hireling, underling, flunky (sic), lackey, thug, hood, tool puppet, accomplice, stooge, hanger-on, ward heeler, minion, myrmidon; follower, supporter, subordinate, helper, aide, right-hand, cohort; groom, attendant, page’
    These don’t quite do it for me, except perhaps ‘hireling’, which supports the ‘henchling’ suggestion by stuartnz.

  3. John Cowan says:

    I don’t think anybody calls themselves a hench{person,man,woman} except in the mood of irony. It’s derogatory. Only the Bad Guys have hench-whatevers.

    Hengest and Horsa are the names given to the leaders of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who first crossed to Britain to become the English. Although most people pronounce the first one’s name with a hard (stop) g, Tolkien always said Henjest, and who should know if not him?

  4. M. R. says:

    Honestly …? I detest this ‘non-sexist’ language. Can’t describe my joy in seeing “Star Trek 2”, when Captain Kirk addressed the First Officer as “Mr. Saavik”. These words are merely TITLES: they actually have no inherent meaning at all.

  5. Roger says:

    Mistress is much reduced in meaning and use nowadays, though there is no reason why it should not be the Master’s fem counterpart in all things, including academic degrees.
    And Hangman, still on the active list in some regions, but unlikely to show on the Careers page.

  6. distanceleft says:

    So we can still use this word I take it? I prefer Flunkies myself.
    Darth Vader Nobleperson of the Sith, doesn’t scan half as well as Lord.

  7. Antiqueight says:

    OO – I like henchling!
    And to M. R. – words and titles have meanings, why else would you use them?

  8. Stan says:

    Stuart: That’s a very good point.

    Margaret: I don’t know that book, but it looks interesting. Obviously there are lots of unrelated synonyms for henchperson, and some of the ones you list are very appealing in their own right. But for a word to retain henchman‘s connotations it may need the hench. I like henchling too.

    John: I don’t know that it’s always ironic. Its use in e.g. film reviews in the NYT and WaPo seems fairly straight, though it carries cartoonish overtones for me (a legacy of childhood encounters). And though I’ve always felt it to be crime-related, the definitions in several dictionaries are more qualified about that aspect of it, including it only as a sub- or secondary sense.

    M. R.: On the contrary: titles can have significant cultural and social meaning. When you say you detest non-sexist language, does that mean you prefer sexist language?

    Roger: Oh yes, hangman is one I hadn’t considered. More popular nowadays as the name of the game than the job title per se.

    distanceleft: Sure you can use it. Flunky is fine too, and fun to say.

    Antiqueight: I like it too. And your moniker is interesting – pronounced “antiquate”, I’m guessing.

  9. marc leavitt says:

    As a newspaperperson, I always cringed at awkward neologisms for gender identification, although I’m perfectly happy with some of them, such as “chair.” I have a hench that “henchperson” will have little currency.

    By the way, a good 2014 to you and yours.

  10. […] Stan Carey dished on the Scottish clishmaclaver and the gender-neutral henchpersons. […]

  11. Stan says:

    Margaret: I wondered about that [sic]. Flunky is how I’ve always spelled (and normally seen) the word; it’s more common than flunkey by some margin. Both are standard.

    Antiqueight: Aha! Thank you.

    Marc: I expect you’re right: whatever about its occasional usefulness in genre fiction, henchperson is unlikely to be needed in factual reporting. Many happy returns.

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    I was thinking of “hench” as a verb and why not and I found the urban dictionary has created a new life for it as an adjective.

    You’re looking hench today, Stan.


  13. John Cowan says:

    Flunkey/flunky seems to be a BrE/AmE distinction, though with crossovers. and AHD5 list flunky first, as does the AmE ODO, but the OED2 and the BrE ODO list flunkey first. The word is of Scots origin, where it is spelled flunkie, but the OED does not record that spelling for English.

  14. Stan says:

    WWW: Nice! I didn’t know that use of the word. Will try to use it in a sentence with dench.

    John: Thanks for that. I hadn’t considered that it might be a BrE/AmE one.

  15. I’ve been musing on M.R.’s comment and Stan’s response to it, and I’m not sure I have anything coherent to add so I’ll say something incoherent instead.

    I think a large part of the hostility against consciously gender-neutral language comes from the percieved slight that people who are content with traditional gendered terms are necessarily guilty of inegalitarian opinion.

    That being so, I think Stan’s response — which removes the scare quotes around “non-sexist” and posits “sexist language” as the alternative — could easily be taken as reinforcing that prejudice. To someone suspicious of consciously gender-neutral language, the question could be construed as rhetorical/sarcastic rather than a sincere attempt to open discussion.

    There is no such slight. At the level of the individual, *of course* one can use traditional gendered terms without harbouring discriminatory attitudes toward men and women. One simply accommodates “x-man includes women” into one’s baggage of cultural knowledge, just as your grandparents did. But at the level of the society, if people collectively make an effort to eradicate gender bias from their thinking, then gendered terms are going to seem increasingly odd, even if the words are not, in themselves, the problem.

    There is also confusion about what the word “sexist” means in the first place. If you equate “sexist” with “assenting to propositional claims to the effect that one gender is superior to another”, then of course gender-differentiated terms are not sexist. But that’s not what “sexist” means: it’s much more subliminal. Just ask my sister how many times my six-month-old niece has been called a “pretty little boy”.

    The term “henchman” really isn’t a big deal — there are no campaigns to encourage more women to choose a career in henching. But I expect part of what Stan is trying to draw attention to is that if we can’t discuss gender bias when it ISN’T important, how can we hope to discuss it when it IS?

    (I’m not so keen on “henchling”. The diminutive may reflect the *respect* given to this line of work, but is at odds with the characteristics typically sought, specifically the muscle. My brain just threw up “henchbody” a few seconds ago, at thirty minutes past midnight.)

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, Adrian, for your constructive (and coherent) thoughts. You’re right that I intended no slight towards M. R.; I just found it curious that sensitive language should elicit detestation. My reply may have been worded too casually; I didn’t want to assume anything.

      Whether much of the hostility towards politically correct language is a result of a “perceived slight” is an interesting question, but not one I’m in a position to pronounce upon.

      You make a good point about henchling. It connotes some of the right things, but some of the wrong things too: it lacks the muscle, as you rightly point out. I’m not sure how I feel about henchbody, so I’ll sit with it a while. Its lack of currency could make it susceptible to confusion with the slang phrase hench body.

  16. seajay23 says:

    Knowing China Mieville’s writing style I suspect he would have used henchperson for the fun of setting off just such an exchange. Mind you, surely henchperson retains the sexually identifying ‘son’, so with full apologies to Barry Humphries’ brilliant ‘docperthing’ for doctor (as in Doctor Germaine Greer) I would avoid ‘henchperthing’; maybe just hencher?
    What about journeyman, how has that slipped by?

    • Stan says:

      seajay23: Maybe he did – his writing is certainly a lot of fun for language nerds. Journeyman is another good example, not mentioned in Miller & Swift’s book either. I expect you were offering person and son with tongue in cheek, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll point out that they appear to be etymologically unrelated.

  17. John Cowan says:

    Sure, not all uses of henchman are ironic. I was saying that nobody calls himself a henchman unless he’s being ironic; it implies that his boss is a criminal mastermind. (Sexist language left in on purpose; if the shoe fits ….)

  18. ERMurray says:

    An excellent post – thank you for highlighting so much in such a short space. Some interesting post discussions too. I’ve definitely learned plenty.

  19. ASG says:

    Barging in late, as always, with a pop culture reference that you may enjoy. The Adult Swim animated comedy The Venture Bros. is a parody of old “boy wonder” stories (Jonny Quest, Hardy Boys, Scooby Doo etc.) It includes, among many, many other tropes, an extended meditation on what reality needs to look like for “henching” (yes, they use it as a verb) to be a viable career choice. There are a few hilarious (and oddly touching) scenes where, for example, former henchmen for archvillains find themselves in AA-style meetings figuring out what they can accomplish on their own. There’s also a very sly story arc about what it takes to make a good hench: you can’t be too competent or else your overlord will consider you a threat, but of course if you’re a redshirt you’ll just get mowed down. You need to be JUST competent enough to stay alive but JUST bumbling enough to keep the eyes of your boss off you. There are a lot of discussions in the episodes along the lines of “who you henching for these days?”, “got the next henching gig lined up?” and so on, used in the same way that people interviewing at the MLA talk about their adjunct gigs in the waiting room. This episode is typical (scroll down to the paragraph that begins “Henchmen 21 and 24”).

    Whether this is an ‘ironic’ use of hench is a loaded question, because the entire show is a pastiche/ironic commentary on old kids’ shows. But within the reality of the show, nobody thinks twice about saying things like “I’m sick of henching, I need a better career.” Which in turn, IMO, is a commentary on the casualization of the workforce and the ‘evil overlords’ to which we are so often in thrall in our real lives. All of this is by way of saying that even old-fashioned/unfashionable words like “hench[man]” can be reclaimed and used to make very cutting observations about the world we actually live in.

    • Stan says:

      ASG, you can barge in whenever you like; the timing is immaterial, especially for such interesting and relevant comments. I’m sorry to say I’ve never watched The Venture Bros., and will try to rectify that soon. All that knowing comedy and commentary about henching sounds like fun.

  20. […] also occurs in China Miéville’s Kraken (a novel I described in a recent post about gender-neutral henchpersons as a darkly comic cephalopod-cult apocalypse romp). Here’s the relevant […]

  21. […] protagonist, Pierce, has just been attacked by a small boss-man, Wentz, and his hulking henchperson, who then dangled Pierce over the balcony of his coastal apartment. Wentz runs ‘a burgeoning […]

  22. […] as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observed – does his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty […]

  23. […] mentioned lexical creativity, and there’s no shortage of it here (I previously examined the use of henchperson in Miéville’s novel Kraken). Embassytown offers novel verbings (basilisking, similed), […]

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