Neuter refers to two different phenomena. It constitutes one class of a grammatical category of nouns called gender. It also is the term used for male animals who have had their testicles removed. The term is rarely applied to human beings except in the context of some works of science fiction that expand gender systems beyond the natural two we assume exist.
In many languages, especially Indo-European and Semitic languages, nouns are classified according to the natural sex of their referents. Thus, the word for "woman" would be classed as a feminine noun and the word for "man" would be classed as a masculine noun. Almost all languages acknowledge this natural gendering and often append a system of gender agreement to these nouns. Gender agreement means that all words associated with the gendered noun—adjectives and pronouns—take their own version of a matching gendered form. For example, in English the pronoun she matches with the noun woman. In French, adjectives and articles take a different form depending on whether they modify a male or female noun.
In many languages grammatical gender does not always correlate with any natural notion of sex. All nouns have a gender even if they refer to inanimate objects. For example, the word for "table" is grammatically gendered differently in different languages: in French, la table is feminine, while in German, Tisch is masculine, and in Norwegian, bord is neuter. Sometimes feminine nouns are used to refer to males (as in the Spanish noun persona [person]) or masculine nouns can refer to females (as in the Spanish miembro [member]).
The neuter grammatical gender occurs in Latin, German, Old English, and other languages and usually refers either to people who are too young to have developed a natural gender, such as babies and unmarried females, or to sexless objects. In German, all words with the diminutive endings -chen or -lein (endings which signal youth or smallness) are neuter even though they refer to females—as in the words Mädchen and Fraulein, which refer to young women. In English, the system surrounding grammatical gender has collapsed so that the language no longer has neuter nouns. The only vestige of the system that remains is the fact that the gender of pronouns matches to the gender of nouns.
The term neuter is also both a noun and a verb that refers to the process of removing an animal's testicles. Called an "orchiectomy," the process renders the animal sterile. The name for the process by which female animals are sterilized is to spay. The process by which human males are neutered is called castration, while in females the process is called a hysterectomy. We generally still refer to neutered animals or humans as their original gender.
Science fiction works, such as Samuel Delaney's "Aye, and Gomorrah …" or Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness present characters who are neuter in the sense that they have no specific masculine or feminine gender. These stories imagine worlds in which the compulsive binaries of our own system no longer hold sway, usually because children do not accede to a gender until puberty, or as in the case of The Left Hand of Darkness, individuals have a mobile gender depending on sexual circumstances.
see also Androgyny.
Corbett, Greville G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Delaney, Samuel. 1967. "Aye, and Gomorrah …" In Dangerous Visions: 33 Original Stories. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
LeGuin, Ursula K. 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker.
neu·ter / ˈn(y)oōtər/ • adj. 1. of or denoting a gender of nouns in some languages, typically contrasting with masculine and feminine or common: it is a neuter word in Greek. 2. (of an animal) lacking developed sexual organs, or having had them removed. ∎ (of a plant or flower) having neither functional pistils nor functional stamens. ∎ (of a person) apparently having no sexual characteristics; asexual. • n. 1. Gram. a neuter word. ∎ (the neuter) the neuter gender. 2. a nonfertile caste of social insect, esp. a worker bee or ant. ∎ a castrated or spayed domestic animal. ∎ a person who appears to lack sexual characteristics. • v. [tr.] castrate or spay (a domestic animal): [as adj.] (neutered) a neutered tomcat. ∎ render ineffective; deprive of vigor or force: disarmament negotiations that will neuter their military power.
So neutral not taking sides; occupying a middle position XVI; (chem.) XVII. — F. †neutral or L. neutrālis. neutrality XV. — (O)F. or medL.