DID THE GENDER OF LATIN WORDS AFFECT THEIR MEANING? When I studied Latin, I learned to pay little attention to whether a noun was masculine or feminine unless for reasons of grammar. So I was surprised to see a review by Teresa Morgan in the TLS (April 29) of Anthony Corbeill’s book SEXING THE WORLD: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome. Morgan says: “Anthony Corbeill’s theory is that grammatical gender is more important to Roman society than we usually assume. The Romans, he argues, noticed the gender of everyday words and consciously connected it with the nature of their society.” For example, the “nurturing earth” is feminine and stone is masculine.
Corbeill finds examples of Roman poets who play with gender to achieve effects. Propertius makes the word for “dust”—which is usually masculine—feminine when a grieving Hercules rubs it into his beard. Catullus treats the word for flint—which is usually masculine—as feminine at the moment when Attis castrates himself in worship of the Great Mother.
Teresa Morgan notes that: “Disappointingly, Corbeill chooses not to tackle the neuter.”