I still remember, when I was in tenth grade, my English teacher making me think, really think, about how how a word can convey a specific thing, and how a supposed opposite can sound like something much different than a mere counterpart.
“Think about it,” she said, “an unmarried man is a bachelor. An unmarried woman is a spinster.”
She sort of spat out the word “spinster,” and as she did, all I thought was, well, yeah, “bachelor” sounds like a nice word, while “spinster” sounds like a word you spit out.
The same thing, for me, applies to the words “gentleman” and “lady.” “Gentleman” just sounds cool, all James Bond and stuff. “Lady,” meanwhile, always conjures, for me, a brittle, fragile, pale thing draped on a Victorian couch complaining about a case of the vapors.
With this said, consider the following admission: I am a Cat Gentleman.
Consider how different that sounds from the phrase “Cat Lady.” That phrase, of course, conjures a lonely spinster (there’s that word again), almost certainly overweight, who usually, in the portrayal of such a person, has no friends. Furthermore, whenever there is a portrayal of such a woman, she is usually surrounded by a disturbing number of cats, far more than is remotely normal.
Consider, instead, the phrase “Cat Gentleman.”
Let’s be honest. It sounds way cooler. It just does.
To be a cat gentleman immediately defines my cat, Hugo, as dignified, suave. He speaks in a cultured voice, and though he spent a rough childhood on the streets, he clearly went to finishing school, and took elocution lessons. And as I have often written when I have written from his point of view, the practice of writing leaves him quite fagged out, and he requires a dish of haddock afterward, posthaste.
Let’s stop here for a moment, and really discuss my tendency to write from my guy Hugo’s point of view. And by the way, just to be clear: he’s my guy. That’s just the way I view Hugo, so there.
I’m sure there are some (there always are) who view it as strange that I write dispatches from the point of view of my cat. Generally speaking though, people tell me they love them. And I’m just not sure there would be the same unqualified approval of them if I were, you know, a Cat Lady.
I’m just sure that if I were a Cat Lady, most people would view it as strange. And once again, besides just the general cultural perception of “The Cat Lady,” the English language doesn’t help.
It doesn’t help because of the word that is open to me to describe my role in Hugo’s life. If I were a woman (and, particularly, if Hugo were a female cat), I’d be the cat’s handmaiden, which brings us back to Victorian times, and the vapors, and all of that. Instead, though, I get to use a genuinely cool word when describing my relationship with Hugo: valet.
If I were a character in a children’s book (and, at some point, I will be, or at least some aspect of me will be, as Hugo, or some aspect of him, will be as well), it would be way cool to be a cat’s valet. A valet immediately conjures the image of Clive Owen in a tuxedo, perhaps carrying a cane that he can use as a single stick (Sherlock Holme’s specialty weapon) in times of trouble. A cat’s valet would be a loyal servant, and he and his feline master would have numerous adventures.
I mean, really, if James Bond owned a cool cat, calling him a “Cat Gentleman” would feel right. Compare this to calling Jennifer Jones “a Cat Lady;” it just doesn’t work. The best I can think of is “cat babe,” and that sounds decidedly sexist.
I am proud to be a Cat Gentleman. I take pride in my role, and when I brush my employer, I know that I am keeping his tuxedo cleaned and pressed. I will fight for him, and lay down my life for him, as any loyal valet—any loyal gentleman, in fact—would.
And I continue to seek a word or phrase that is the true female counterpart to this. The English language desperately needs something that connotes La Chat Femme Nikita (or La Femme Chat Nikita; I don’t quite know where the qualifier goes). It is a poorer place for this sad absence.