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In distinguishing between Herren and Damen, I would have guessed that that Herren would be for men, because it’s similar to Herr, which is one of the few German words I know.

I know that Damen is cognate with the English word dame, from the etymology information in the German edition of Wiktionary on both the German and English words Dame.

But looking at the Wiktionary entry on Herr, it mentions a feminine gender word Herrin, meaning Lady. Is this more of a rare exception than the rule? Or is it unsafe to assume that words cognate with Herr are typically referring to men?

  • On a side note, do not take Herrin to mean lady or even Lady … when the word is used alone, the first associations often include leather and a whip. – Jan May 15 '15 at 18:24
  • @Jan that's the kind of detail textbooks and dictionaries often don't mention! (The same would be true in English for "mistress") – Andrew Grimm May 16 '15 at 8:40
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In some cases a noun describing something male (sex, not gender) has a matching female noun formed by attaching -in (and dumping final vowels).

Typical examples are professions and sometimes animals (unless separate male/female words exist) :

  • Bäcker -> Bäckerin
  • Kellner -> Kellnerin
  • Arzt -> Ärztin (note the umlaut!)
  • Hase -> Häsin (again a shifts to ä, e is removed)
  • Esel -> Eselin

So back to your Herr -> Herrin question:

Whenever a pair of male/female form exists, you may assume that the female form is derrived from the male, which is in most cases both the explicitly male and the "neutral" or "generic" term.1

Therefore, yes, if a word is derrived from Herr it is either male or generic. But please note that you would typically be dealing with Herr in the sense of lord or superior. The standard form of address Herr is a honorific that has been "demoted" to a common word.


1 This is a generalization for beginners, not a fixed rule. I'm sure there are some exceptions.

  • "In some cases a noun describing something male (sex, not gender) has a matching female noun" - I think the explanation might be even better without the restriction to "some cases". The suffix "-in" is indeed a very general marker, and - given a suitable context - can be appended to any word. As an example: When telling a fantasy/children's tale about speaking potatoes, the word "Kartoffelin" will invariably be understood to refer to a female potato character by native speakers, simply based on the suffix, even though the word "Kartoffelin" would never appear in any other context. – O. R. Mapper May 15 '15 at 19:04
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    As for the footnote: Braut/Bräutigam comes to mind. – O. R. Mapper May 15 '15 at 19:05
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    @O.R.Mapper: But I wanted to make clear that not all "male" terms have a feminine "-in" counterpart you would find in a dictionary. Obviously you can make up such terms, but keeping the abuse of these "femininized" (is that a word?) terms in the wake of he feminist movement in mind I hesitate to give a general recommendation. "Taschenrechnerinnen"anyone? (Disclaimer: I am female) – Stephie May 15 '15 at 19:33
  • Again, in an appropriate context, Taschenrechner and Taschenrechnerin might be a happy couple ;) However, I suspect I tried to imagine the explanation into the opposite direction than you're going - I rather tried pointing out that the suffix "-in" will be understood as being a female counterpart of another word by German speakers, not because the word ending on "-in" is listed as something female in a dictionary, but explicitly because of the suffix. In other words, even "-in"-words that are not in a dictionary will be understood to be female counterparts of matching "male" terms. – O. R. Mapper May 15 '15 at 19:41
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    @O.R.Mapper: And if we leave these comments here, I guess OP should really get a good idea on how the mechanism works. Thanks! – Stephie May 15 '15 at 19:44
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Herr Müller und Herr Maier bezeichnen in der Tat immer Männer, aber es gibt daneben auch die Bedeutung des Herrn wie im berühmten, dialektischen Gegensatz von Herr und Knecht (Hegel), und da ist es die Funktion eines Herrschers, nicht unbedingt eines politischen Herrschers, sondern auch Großgrundbesitzer usw. - da ist das Geschlecht der Person nicht festgelegt, wenn auch das Geschlecht des Wortes männlich ist.

Andere Verwendungen: "Ärzte: Herren über Leben und Tod?", "Hund und Herrchen", "Domina Dolores: Lass mich Deine Herrin sein!".

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    Andrew mentioned that he knows only a few German words, I fear that most of those that you have used are not among them ;) – Carsten S May 15 '15 at 15:50
  • Wo hat Andrew das erwähnt? Ich seh's nicht. – user unknown May 15 '15 at 15:59
  • @userunknown which is one of the few German words I know, erster Absatz, letzter Teilsatz. – Jan May 15 '15 at 15:59
  • Stimmt. Andererseits ist man gehalten nur Fragen zu stellen, die eine größere Audienz interessieren. – user unknown May 15 '15 at 17:01
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    Out of curiosity, did my German surname make you think I was proficient in German? – Andrew Grimm May 16 '15 at 8:41

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