Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on the word “gender”

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The abuse of “gender” for “sex” has long annoyed me, but I have taken the view that the use for “self-perceived sexual identity” (or similar) was acceptable or even beneficial—if nothing else, the latter is a separate concept and using a separate term for a separate concept is usually a good idea.* However, I unconsciously based this view on a faulty premise: that the grammatical gender was inherently a division into masculine/feminine/neuter or something along similar lines (e.g. just masculine/feminine or masculine/feminine/neuter/common; while an apparently genderless language can equally be viewed as having exactly one gender**). Using this premise, an application to similar*** divisions in other areas would not be absurd—if a good word was not already present.

*Indeed, one of my more common complaints about the PC crowd is the high-jacking of words to mean something different from what would be historically expected and/or expected among other speakers, e.g. (in the same area) that “man” and “woman” would refer to self-perception instead of biology. It would be much better to introduce new words for these new concepts. Even worse is deliberate re-/mis-definition for purposes like manipulation, as with e.g. “racism” and “rape” in some circles.

**At least, assuming that it follows a pattern somewhat similar to the typical Indo-European languages, as e.g. a version of English where “they” (“them”, etc.) was abused as a full replacement for “he”, “she”, “it” (“him”, etc.)—which is where, regrettably, English seems be heading. (The abuse as a generic third-person singular is already dominant.) A sufficiently different language might behave too differently (but is then unlikely to be relevant in this context).

***I stress that e.g. a grammatical “masculinity” does not automatically imply a physical or biological “masculinity”, which is obvious from languages with a more differentiated system than English—hence, “similar” above. This differentiation is another reason not to use “gender” for “sex”—grammatical gender and biological sex are not always coinciding. (In German, words for things can be grammatically masculine, feminine, or neutral, even when a logical neutral might be expected. Words applied to men can be feminine (e.g. “die Person”/“the person”); words applied to women can be masculine (e.g. “der Mensch”/“the human”); words for either can be neutral (e.g. “das Individuum”/“the individual”. Of course, the gender changes based on what word is used—not based on the entity referred to.)

This, however, is not strictly the case: it happens to be true in many languages, including English and German, but other divisions are possible. For instance, Proto-Indo-European might have had an animate/inanimate division. Even my native Swedish deviates through a somewhat arbitrary division into utrum and neutrum:* The members of these genders, for all practical and modern purposes, only differ in what indefinite (“en”/“ett”) and definite (“den”/“det”) article is used and whether an “-en” or an “-et” is to be suffixed in certain situations.** Indeed, they were more often referred to as “en-ord” och “ett-ord” (“ord” = “word(s)”) than “utrum” and “neutrum” in school.

*The discussion of actual Swedish grammar in school was superficial, incomplete, or even incorrect—a problem that native speakers of other languages might also have encountered. For this reason, I had simply never really reflected on the implications of the Swedish deviation until today. As an added complication, there are several different perspectives on Swedish genders (above, I discuss the most common) and the situation was historically different.

**E.g. “en sak”/“a thing” vs. “ett träd”/“a tree” and “den saken”/“that thing” vs “det trädet”/“that tree”.

Looking outside of grammar, there have been many uses of the word “gender” that also follow the line of a more general classification, e.g. that being English/German/whatnot or belonging to a certain family was discussed in terms of “gender”. Older use for sexual division (e.g. “the female gender”) is just a special case of this, and not* a precedent for a specialized use relating to sex or sexual identity. This makes it the more illogical to use “gender” when it is actually the sex (or even sexual identity) that is intended: a “Sex:” on a driver’s license calls for “M[ale]” or “F[emale]” with some clarity**, while “Gender:” might equally call for “E[nglish]”.

*Similarly, the fact that we could speak of someone being of the “female persuasion” does not make “persuasion” a good replacement for “sex”, because we can equally combine “persuasion” with other words implying group membership. Note that this applies to a wide range of other words too, e.g. “class”, “set”, “category”. (If it had just been “persuasion”, it might have been rejected as an abuse, or something to restrict to humorous formulations, for other reasons. The choice of “persuasion” as an example is based on the higher frequency of “female persuasion” over, say, “female category”.)

**Or at least it used to… However, even for those who cannot or does not want to be classified as male or female, the type of the classification is clear. On the other hand, confusion with sexual acts is highly unlikely outside of the famous joke about the girl who found her mother’s driver’s license (“Mommy! I know why Dad divorced you! You got an ‘F’ in sex!”).

I re-iterate my recommendation never, ever to use “gender” when “sex” is the traditional word. When it comes to sexual identity, the question is trickier because, again, a separate* word makes sense, and I am unable to offer an alternative that is both sufficiently understandable and has a sufficient current use to not cause as much confusion as “gender”*. However, this might be an area where “persuasion” (see earlier footnote) has some possibilities, actually gaining through its more regular meaning in the area of opinions and convictions, e.g. in that the-athlete-previously-known-as-Bruce would be considered of the male sex and the female persuasion.** Possibly, some shortening of “sexual persuasion”, e.g. “sexper” or “seper”, might work as a replacement for “gender” in such an attempt.***

*Another strong argument against the abuse of “gender” for “sex” is that many will assume a reference to sexual identity where biological sex was intended and vice versa.

**Or at least was so “pre-op”. Possibly, additional terminology is needed for the “post-op” case.

***Using an unabbreviated “sexual persuasion” would be too lengthy in many contexts, e.g. on driver’s licenses. It would also risk a dropping of “sexual” in sloppy use, with negative effects on other meanings of “persuasion”—just like “discrimination” and “intercourse” has seen a drift towards using the word solely for a special case implied by a longer phrase. To start with just “persuasion” would be even worse.

Addendum to the linked-to text:
Possibly ten years ago, I wrote “The possibility that existing literature eventually would be actively re-written to adhere to ‘gender-neutrality’ is not at all far-fetched:”. Indeed not: Consider e.g. my (much later) text on distortion of Blyton, where I lament that the actual events and characters of her books, not just specific words, have been altered for similar reasons.


Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2019 at 7:47 am

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