Grammatical gender* is an unfamiliar concept to some native English speakers. If you’re learning a language like Spanish, for instance, one of the earliest lessons is that some nouns are feminine (la mesa for “the table”) and others masculine (el café for “coffee”). Gendered words are part of many other languages around the world, too, but not so much in English—or are they?
Believe it or not, English shared the practice of gendering nouns until around the 1200s. And, around this time, it also began borrowing vast amounts of words from French, which, like Spanish, has grammatical gender. This is how we get the whole blond vs. blonde bombshell. So, what’s the difference?
What does blond mean?
You probably know blond as a hair color. It literally means “light-colored,” and was first recorded in English in the mid-1400s. It derives from the French blond, which refers to “light brown” and similar hues.
But wait, haven’t you seen the word blond spelled with an E too: blonde? Well, those French origins we were just talking about are why the word has two different spellings in English.
How is blonde different from blond?
Blonde and blond essentially mean the same thing. It’s just that in French, blond is the masculine form, both as a noun and adjective; adding the E makes it feminine. So, a woman with blond hair is une blonde, a man, un blond.
In English—if we are being technical about the word’s French origins—blonde as a noun or adjective should be applied to women or girls “having light hair and usually fair skin and light eyes.” That means a man or boy is a blond, or has blond hair—not blonde hair with an E.
The Associated Press (AP) Style Book upholds this rule. Garner’s Modern American Usage, on the other hand, cautions against using blonde due to risks of sexism. Having a blonde moment or being a dumb blonde isn’t really about hair color, is it?
Further complicating matters is the fact that blond, in American English, is often the preferred default adjective while British English tends toward blonde. Can you say “confusing”?
Is there still a standardized distinction between blonde and blond?
Style guides aside, the blond and blonde distinction may be breaking down in popular writing. A March 2019 PopSugar article celebrated female country singer Maren Morris’s new “blond” hair. Meanwhile, in January 2019, a Time headline noted male actor Chris Messina’s “blonde” hair on the red carpet.
And, it’s not just hair. Starbucks sells blonde, not blond, espresso, and some brewers serve up blonde ales. Do they mean to feminize their coffee or beer, or is it just that we are using blond and blonde more interchangeably these days?
As Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer observes in his 2019 style guide Dreyer’s English: “‘Blonde’ carries some heavy cultural baggage by way of the moldy pejorative ‘dumb blonde,’ so use it thoughtfully and carefully, if at all.”
What other words follow this pattern?
Interestingly, blond is not the only gendered hair color. The word brunette is actually the feminine form of the word brunet. Like blond(e), these words are French in origin. Technically, a brunette is a “brown-haired female” while a brunet is a male one. But, this distinction has largely fallen out of fashion, unlike blond and blonde—and unlike fiancé and fiancée.
A fiancé means “a man engaged to be married” while a fiancée is a woman so engaged. The words, first recorded in English in the 1850s, come from the French fiancier, “to promise,” ultimately form the Latin fides, “faith.” In English, such gendered language is common in relationship terms (e.g., girlfriend and boyfriend, husband and wife), though a societal push for nonbinary, non-heteronormative ways to speak about relationships may change that in the future.
We can see also how language evolves with societal norms by looking at words like poetess or prophetess, female forms of poet or prophet that have largely become archaic as we’ve realized we don’t need to mark gender in these contexts. That’s because setting aside a term like poetess just for female poets can imply that 1) poets being male is a default assumption, and 2) female poets are somehow lesser or inferior.
Flight attendant has overtaken stewardess for the airline employee, as the latter has been variously seen to trivialize or sexualize the job as woman’s work. Actor and waiter are also beginning to prevail over gendered terms like waitress and actress—though the Academy Awards still makes the distinction for the latter when it hands out its trophies.
As society trends more gender-neutral language, it will be interesting to see whether or not these and other words maintain these extraneous, confusing, and often just conventional distinctions in gender. Who knows, maybe in the future having a blonde moment will refer to occasions when people insist on fussing about the differences between blond vs. blonde.
*It’s important to note that grammatical gender, outside of references to humans, animals, etc., doesn’t correlate to natural sex or gender identity. In most cases, it’s simply a way of categorizing nouns based on arbitrary assignments (i.e., there isn’t anything inherently feminine about la mesa in Spanish).