Seeking a female word for ‘virtuoso’

12th March 2017 | Daily Life, Musings, Teaching | 6 comments

Yesterday we had a meeting of my piano club, a group of adult amateur pianists interested in developing their playing. The subject of ‘virtuosos’ and ‘virtuoso technique’ came up in relation to a piano piece with some fast, technically difficult ‘show-off’ passages. We wondered where the word ‘virtuoso’ comes from and what it really means?

A little research showed that ‘virtuoso’ comes from the Latin word ‘vir’ = a man, and from the word ‘virtuous’ in an old sense of ‘distinguished by manly qualities; full of manly strength.’ Some of us felt that the phrase ‘a female virtuoso’ is therefore unsatisfactory. It seems perverse to describe a woman as a ‘virtuoso’ once you know that the word signified manliness. But women pianists can be every bit as dazzling as men. Perhaps we need a new word to describe them?

There used to be a word ‘virtuosa’, but the OED says it was a specialised word, ‘now rare’, referring to a learned religious woman. Although some modern dictionaries claim the word is available to signify ‘a female virtuoso’, it has never caught on in the world of music.

So if ‘vir’ is the Latin for ‘man’, how about using the Latin word for ‘woman’? It’s ‘mulier’ (today its descendant is found in the Spanish ‘mujer’, a woman). A female equivalent of ‘virtuoso’ might be something like ‘mulierosa’, ‘full of womanly strength’. I tried to imagine using it in a phrase like, ‘the mulierosa pianist Martha Argerich’. ‘Clara Schumann had a mulierous piano technique.’

Hmmm. But is ‘womanly strength’ the female equivalent of ‘manly strength’, or are women’s strengths different? In that case we still need a good word for ‘a woman musician with a dazzling technique’. The search continues.

6 Comments

  1. Ivan Huke

    I am happy to accept that such ladies as Martha Argerich and yourself are ‘virtuosos’. Try to blank out the association with the Latin ‘vir’. If we all worry too much about the origins of words, language will not be the useful, evolving tool that it is. For example, who is bothered by the fact that the word ‘lady’ originally meant a person who made loaves of bread? And when a footballer scores with a ‘clinical’ finish, who is troubled by the thought that ‘clinical’ matters should relate to beds (from the original Greek)?

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Ivan, what a delightful comment, thank you! I guess my blog post was slightly tongue in cheek, but it’s true that as a woman one does get tired of having to borrow ‘male’ words. It’s nice at any rate to be a pianist rather than a pianistess!

      Reply
  2. John Goacher

    It would certainly never have occurred to me that ‘virtuoso’ referred specifically to a man. Whatever the origin of the word, all current definitions of virtuoso that I can find from a quick google search start with “An individual” or “a person”.

    The modern trend is surely to move away from using gender specific terms. For example, it is increasingly common to refer to females in the acting profession as actors rather than actresses, except in the case of gender specific awards such as “best actress”.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      John, you’re right. The discussion we had at piano club was light-hearted – basically I agree with you that we should just accept the modern use of ‘virtuoso’ to mean a person of either gender, but it was interesting to think about the etymology!

      Reply
  3. Davey

    You will be delighted to learn that your fears are unfounded. The word virtuoso has a feminine form virtuosa, singular. Two women would be virtuose. The late Latin virtuosus is from virtus, meaning virtue, excellence, skill. Since a man was meant to embody these qualities, its fourth meaning is manliness. But the first three meanings, equally prevalent in women, make the English meaning clear. Since we take the Italian directly into English, we can use the feminine (and plural) form, too. After all, we talk about referenda and phenomena, using Latin and Greek plurals respectively. We can say aviatrix for a woman aviator, but it’s easier to just say pilot. We have no English word for virtuoso, which is why we borrowed the Italian. It’s much more euphonious to say virtuosi than virtuosos or virtuosoes. English has simple grammar and no feminine, which is at the heart of its success as the international language.
    Wikipedia shows all this and, signicantly, there are 11 virtuosi pictured, but only one virtuosa: Valentina Lisitsa. The gender imbalance you bewail, therefore, is not in the language, but in European culture. Wasn’t there a film called Mozart’s sister?

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      What a delightfully erudite reply! I love the phrase ‘the gender imbalance you bewail is not in the language, but in European culture.’ So true! Thank you, Davey.

      Reply

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