I’ve been searching assiduously for an old watering can. The galvanized kind. The kind that’s already lasted forever and still has life in it. New at the gardening store here, they are 60 euros. That’s a pretty strong case to buy a plastic one, but I figured if I just held out, if I just went to enough vide-greniers…
On August 15, at the vide-grenier in Givry, my search came to an end. In duplicate. While browsing the tables at one end of the field, my daughter came running from the other, with a beautiful watering can in each arm. “Look what we found!” Indeed, they were quite a find, and both together for a lovely, low price. Before looking at them well, I thought, “Why two?” but an instant later, I realized why. It would have been hard to choose between them, to separate them.
In French, “watering can” is l’arrosoir. In Italian, it’s l’inaffiatoio (or l’anaffiatoio). Both masculine. So, obviously, in the well-populated world of objects, the watering can—somewhere along the line—was considered to have more testosterone than estrogen. Hmmm. I’ve lived in Europe for over 14 years now, struggling the entire time with language, and my relationship with the gender of words remains uncomfortable at best. My American DNA requires equality, or at least choice. (I’ve tried to master a rapidly uttered, barely perceptible article that will sound right to any ear that hears it, but guess what…this doesn’t really work.)
In the case of my two watering cans, being a visual person, I am inclined to throw out years and years of linguistic history and declare without hesitation that one of them is decidedly feminine, while the other is unabashedly masculine, and that together they make a beautiful couple. (And if they are both male, as the linguistic laws of both French and Italian insist that they are, they still make a beautiful couple.) It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Perhaps grammatical gender, like human sexual preference, should be assigned personally by the speaker according to his or her whims, instincts and deep inexplicable associations—a more modern way to describe a more modern world. For the linguistically inclined it would probably be a complicated mess (not to mention the beginning of the lawless unraveling of diction, syntax and spelling). But for me, it would simplify matters considerably, and I’d enjoy having the freedom to choose.