23

For me, it feels slightly clumsy to say I'm a Research Fellow without actually being a fellow (defined as a male person). Nevertheless, it's unsurprising to have female research fellows at universities.

Q: Is Research Fellow a gender-neutral term?

With this question, I'm seeking a way to understand why no-one seems to mind using "research fellow" to describe non-males. Perhaps there's some etymology to the term that would clarify things.

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    The answers give etymology but I'd also like to point out that "fellow" is widely perceived as gender-neutral in academia. At least, I've never heard anyone use or even suggest an alternative term for fellows of learned societies, research fellowships or the fellows [academic staff] of Oxbridge colleges. – David Richerby Mar 18 '15 at 10:30
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    Also the royal society seems to use fellow for women, too. – Federico Poloni Mar 18 '15 at 11:49
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    Yep, OED describes it as "one who shares with another in possession, official dignity, or in the performance of any work". It brings to mind a certain common speech starter by US Presidents, "My fellow Americans..." – TylerH Mar 18 '15 at 18:30
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    "Fellow" is also gender-neutral in medicine: Fellowship – hBy2Py Jun 15 '15 at 13:24
  • sounds like "fellow" is gender neutral in academia and medicine but otherwise, you wouldn't refer to a woman in the street as "that fellow over there" -- interesting! – user46145 Dec 16 '15 at 21:23
38

Yes, in your reference, the third definition is the one being used, rather than the first:

a member of a group of people who have shared interests, activities, etc.

Of course, we should look to how the word is actually used rather than solely to its dictionary definition, but in this case I think that actually makes the argument even stronger, since academics use the neutral form quite a lot and nobody else (at least in my part of the world) seems to care for the word.

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    Actually, I think it is definition 6 or possibly 5 that is being used. And most of the senses listed are not gender specific. – Kimball Mar 18 '15 at 8:03
30

Yes, "research fellow" is a gender neutral term, just as Simone de Beauvoir can be called a "fellow traveler".

The word "fellow" derives from the Old English feolaga which means roughly "one who shares something" and is etymologically not gendered; you are being misled by the more recent colloquial usage (less than 600 years old) to mean male person. But the meaning here, which is specific to the academic context, developed separately (via the notion that the fellows of a college share in its revenues). You can find more details at the wonderful reference, the Online Etymology Dictionary.

5

Indeed, as you suspect, etymologically it is not gender specific. If you think about the usages, fellow typically just carries a connotation of "going along with" or "having in common with." See this page for more on the etymology. The wikitionary entry also has usage notes stating fellow is not typically used in the sense of "a man" in North America.

  • 3
    Even in British English, where fellow is used to mean man, in an academic context I don't think anyone would consider it to be a gendered term. – MJeffryes Mar 18 '15 at 10:02

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