Not long for the language

At the meetings of my local editors group, we have a “Word of the Month”. It gives us a chance to learn a new word or learn more about a word we already know, and have some topical discussion. This month I provided the word. I chose “cisgender”, which means (according to Merriam-Webster online), “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”[1] It’s a word that came up recently in an article I was reading with the ESL student I’m tutoring, and it came up a lot in a book I just edited about the opinions of Canadian youth on religion, gender and sexuality. It’s a fairly new word, but one that is perhaps not long for the language.

There has been much discussion, and some controversy, about how we discuss gender. There is debate happening right now about the use of “they/them/their” as a third-person singular pronoun. For editors, the issue with this is that it is grammatically incorrect—for now. That wasn’t always the case, and it may change again soon. For others, the debate is much more critical and is about the limitations of English when it comes to defining identity. “Cisgender” figures in this discussion too.

“Cisgender” is a fairly new word, emerging out of academia in the 1990s to fulfill a need in transgender discourse and study. A term was needed to describe what wasn’t transgender. Someone coined the term using the Latin prefix, “cis”, meaning “on this side of”—the opposite of “trans” which means “on the other side of.” It seemed to do the trick, at the time, an innocuous academic term. But”cisgender” has taken on much heavier meaning in recent years. For some, it has come to imply privilege and perhaps even prejudice. Identifying as “cisgender”, or being identified as such, suggests that perhaps you are not accepting of those who are transgender or don’t want their gender brought into the discussion.[2] My 25-year-old daughter tells me “cisgender” is almost a slur in some instances. So maybe this word won’t last much longer. Maybe it’s on the way out.

The book I recently edited showed the reluctance of young people to define themselves using old terms and phrases. When filling out a questionnaire, they didn’t always want to use the options provided for them when asked to describe aspects of their identities. They didn’t want to tick off just one box, or any box, or they wanted to create their own box(es). They wanted control of their identities, and that meant making the language fit their needs, rather than trying to make do with what was available to them. And they definitely didn’t want to accept the limitations of the common, perhaps old, identities that society dictates.[3]

This was particularly true of gender, and it’s the reason for the push to use “they” as a singular pronoun. People, especially young people, don’t want their gender—and all the judgements, assumptions, restrictions and expectations—identified when someone is talking about them. Refer to someone as “she” or “he”, and a lot is implied in those simple little words. But refer to someone as “they”, and gender is taken out of the discussion. That is what people want—to be seen, talked about, referred to as a person without gender, just as “themselves”.

When “cisgender” and the use of “they” as a singular pronoun came up in the article I was reading with my ESL student, it led to a very interesting discussion. It is hard for someone to learn our language when it is changing as they learn it. But as we talked about this issue, me and this young woman of the same age and opinions as my daughters and the young adults in that book, we both got very excited about the possibilities that change in the language could provide. It could mean a whole new way of looking at ourselves and each other, one that doesn’t have preconceptions or possibly bad intentions.

For me, watching this change happen is very exciting—but then I’m kind of nerdy about this stuff. It used to be that a change in our language would take years, decades. Now, in our “hyper-communicative” age, when ideas are disseminated globally in minutes, language change could be a matter of months or weeks or even days. As we grapple with this issue of identity and how to describe it, someone might come up with the perfect term, the perfect word, that will appeal to many, and it will sweep the planet, and just like that, the language will change. We might even be happy with it, for a while, until the next change is needed. I think that’s a good thing. Our language should keep up with us, not the other way around. But it does mean we have to pay attention to language, understand how and when it changes so that we can continue to use it well. I think that’s a good thing too.

[1] “Cisgender,” Accessed 17 March, 2018.

[2] Paula Blank, “Will ‘Cisgender’ Survive?”, The Atlantic, 24 September, 2014. Accessed 17 March, 2018.

[3] Pamela Dickey Young and Heather Shipley, “Identities Under Construction” [tentative title]. Forthcoming.

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