Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Masseurs, Masseuses, and Massage Therapists

People often stumble over what to call me. “He's a mass . . . mass . . . um, he does massage,” they say. The quick answer is, I'm a massage therapist. Longer answer below.

The word for what I do is massage. It's a French word, which should at first strike you as a little mysterious, since no important massage tradition begins in France. The terminology of western massage as we know it now comes from Germany and the Netherlands: the first important texts came from there, and its terminology was invented by 19th Century German-speakers. But 19th Century scientific Germans tended to use French, as earlier generations had used Latin: it was the general language of science, and if you wanted an international terminology that would sound modern and scientific, that was where you turned. And of course, if you were Dutch, your French was probably as good as your German, or better.

(Incidentally, a side-note here: the mysterious “Swedish,” in “Swedish massage,” and the now-defunct “Swedish exercises” is due mostly to Per Hendrik Ling, a Swedish genius, or charlatan, depending on who you ask, who popularized fitness exercises and physical therapy in the early 19th Century, and who may or may not have learned something about tui na from an even less-documented Chinese man known only as “Ming.” Ling -- yes, you're right, the potential for limericks here is seriously distracting -- didn't do much writing and what he did write is not very clear. He is a far less important figure than he's ordinarily taken to be, in the history of massage.)

So the basic textbook terminology of massage is French. We perform effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), and tapotement (drumming). And of course, the general word for what we do is massage, which is a self-consciously foreign word in English: its accent is on the second syllable, and its 'g' is slushed in a suspiciously French, effeminate manner. Obviously something fancy and not quite manly.

So what do you call a person who practices this faintly disreputable art? Well, any French speaker would call someone who does massage a masseur, if male, or a masseuse, if female. (These words have no particular spin, that I know of, in French. A male dancer is a danseur and a female one is a danseuse.) I grew up with these words, and they are the ones I would naturally use: my instinct would be to call myself a masseur.

But funny things happen when words are imported into another language. English has increasingly frowned on pairs of words that distinguish male from female. I grew up with the actor/actress pair, also borrowed from French: you would no more have called a woman an “actor,” thirty years ago, than you would have called a girl a boy: people simply would not have understood you. There's now a confused but fairly strong sense that there's something sexist or even salacious about the masseur/masseuse pair. They are felt to be not quite respectful, although most people could not tell you why. “Masseuse” in particular -- I found upon polling a group of massage therapists -- is felt by many to be ambiguous and suggestive, the word you'd use if you were not quite sure whether the person in question did massage or sex work.

Masseur is, I think, a doomed form. For one thing, its common English pronunciation is identical with the common English pronunciation of monsieur -- we say “muh-SIR” for both of them -- which is bound to make an English speaker uneasy. One of the few things we know about French is that muh-SIR is their word for “mister”: why would we use it, then, to denote a massage therapist? For another, there are more women in the field than men, more masseuses than masseurs, and so masseuse, in a language that doesn't like to use distinct male/female forms, will tend to win out. One of the recommendations for me that I have on my website refers to me as a “masseuse”: it took some force of will for me not to edit that into “masseur.”

I would no more call myself a masseuse than I would call myself, if I took to the stage, an actress. To me, and I would guess to anyone versed in French, “masseuse” clearly denotes a female massage therapist. To apply it to myself would be misleading, if not deceptive.

The emerging solution is “massage therapist.” I don't particularly like it. “Massage therapist,” to someone with linguistic sensibilities, is repellant: “massage” is French and “therapist” is Greek, so they have no business chumming up like that. And anyway, the whole thing is long-winded and highfalutin. Five foreign syllables to designate something so basic?

And yet I think we're stuck with it. “Massager” already means a machine -- that's what you call it when you don't want to call it a vibrator -- so that won't do. And the native English word for massage is “rub,” an excellent and durable word; but somehow I don't think “rubber” is going to catch on as a vocational title, nor “kneader,” nor “stroker.”

The problem is deeper than denotation: the problem is that the activity itself is suspect, and you need to counteract that by loading up hefty, high-status, imported words, and employing lots of syllables. It could be worse, I guess. According to the State of Oregon, I am a “mechanotherapist.” A six-syllable word, that no one has ever seen, and no one knows how to pronounce? Please, just call me a “rubber.” I'll take the chuckle-nudge-snorting.

So I'm a massage therapist. My massage is “therapeutic,” -- you always have to say that: it means that it's not erotic -- and so I find that I am suddenly a health care professional, whether I believe that massage as I practice it has any medical benefits or not. (I've written about this before, here and here.)

Words have consequences. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be a health care professional. As a matter of fact, I don't: I just want to do massage. More about that in later posts. For the moment: call me a “massage therapist.” It will have to do.

No comments: