I needed some plumbing parts, and the fellow at Grover's asked if I needed the male fitting or the female. Being of the generation I am, I was so embarrassed! What are the origins of this terminology? Is it used in fields other than plumbing? Don't laugh, and please don't use my name.

I needed some plumbing parts, and the fellow at Grover's asked if I needed the male fitting or the female. Being of the generation I am, I was so embarrassed! What are the origins of this terminology? Is it used in fields other than plumbing? Don't laugh, and please don't use my name.

— E.C. in Jacksonville

E.C. ... you're putting us on, right?

We're reminded of the old story about the Victorians covering up piano legs to preserve "purity of ideas." This was an era in which if you showed ankle, you were probably (gasp) a coquette; unmarried women did not shake hands, and a gentleman did not appear in shirtsleeves before a woman not his wife. Sounds familiar with the upswing in fundamentalist Islam, eh?

As far as we can tell there was no "pre-male/female" era in plumbing, probably because people worked out the male/female thing long before modern plumbing.

Yes, the m/f thing is used in other fields — electronics, mechanics, data communications, irrigation systems, brakes and fuel lines to name a few. Female parts are sometimes called "slots," "sockets," "receptacles" and "outlets." Male parts are "plugs," "prongs" and "pins."

There's no end to this stuff. If you want to join two cables with male ends, you need a "gender changer." Seriously. Pneumatic tool parts with both male and female endings are called hermaphrodite fittings. And back in the plumbing department, don't even get us started on why acrylonitrile butadiene styrene needs virgin resins.

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