Release notes: the formal language of sexuality and gender identity

By Jonathan Dent, Senior Assistant Editor

It is fifty years and more since the social phenomenon known as the sexual revolution began to sweep much of the western world. In the subsequent decades, the words with which we describe and refer to our own and other people’s sexual tastes, preferences, and orientations, and the distinct but often overlapping categories of sex and gender identity have emerged from private and specialist contexts to become part of the language of everyday life. In that process, existing vocabulary has been elaborated, tested, found wanting, and augmented with new terms to cover an increasingly complex understanding of these topics. The range and varying register of these words reflects the central importance of sexuality and gender to much of human experience. As a broad semantic group these words stretch from slang and slurs to comfortable colloquial shorthand and on to formal, scientific terminology; they include biblical borrowings, long-obsolete euphemisms the origins and full implications of which are sometimes only dimly graspable, the classificatory jargon of nineteenth and twentieth century sexology and psychology, and almost entirely new words coined as the means of self-expression and self-identification within newly connected communities and groups.

Within this quarter’s update, there are a number of entries making up a small range that was labelled ‘Sex and Gender’ as it passed through the OED‘s revision workflow. The contents of this range are drawn largely from the more scientific, technical end of the lexical spectrum just described, while future updates will include batches of less formal words, both current and historical, relating to human sexuality and gender identity. In spite of its notionally limited scope, this range of entries covers a wealth of material and subjects. It includes Sir Thomas Browne’s uncertain musings on the supposedly bisexous (i.e. hermaphroditic) nature of hares and the ‘Androgynall condition in man’; covers the unsexing of Lady Macbeth in unsex and the engendering of Christ the Son by God the Father in engender, outlines the legal history of the homosexual panic defence and explains the cause of androgenetic alopecia (male, or female, pattern baldness), and records that the words heterosexism and heterosexist are first recorded in the early 1970s, in the work of feminist writers Jill Johnston and Robin Morgan.

If all human life is somehow represented in these entries, then, so is the full historical span of English. OED’s coverage stretches back to Old English for a recipe for a potion which ensures, if it is drunk by both prospective mother and father, that a child will be male, but which, if only the mother partakes, will ensure that the child is ‘an androgyne’. And it shines light on an old but persistent phenomenon—fear among some men of appearing to be gay—in a contemporary manifestation, with a new subentry for the parenthetic disavowal of the homoerotic, no homo.

Despite this obvious richness, the following notes concentrate solely on some of the linguistic choices which speakers and writers of English have made for themselves (and which others have frequently made for us) in describing sexual preferences and behaviour, and also gender identities and expression.

Sex and semantics

Even with words which are strongly associated with one or other of these two distinct categories, pitfalls await the incautious reader due to the centrality of sex (in various senses) to human experience. Many of the terms formed from the element sex and its derivatives share a bipartite or tripartite nature, operating in the realms of biology, human social mores, and individual sexual orientation or gender identity. The main senses of ambisexual, for instance, range from evidence dealing with biological discussions of hermaphroditic bees, trees, and oysters; through the classification of mixed social events, unisex clothing styles, and baby names suitable for both boys and girls; to a sexological category for those who engage in sexual activity with both men and women with equal enthusiasm.

The entry for the more familiar (and sexologically distinct) adjective bisexual meanwhile has senses covering heterosocial interaction between men and women, and biological usages relating both to hermaphroditism and the contrary state of having distinct male and female individuals, as well as its most widespread modern meaning. A modern reader of a mid-nineteenth century evangelical periodical might find the suggestion that prominent Anglo-Catholic theologian Edward Pusey had ‘discovered and introduced into his congregations bisexualism’ a particularly unlikely and scurrilous allegation to be made against a Victorian clergyman, unless they happened to be aware that Pusey was known for encouraging segregated seating for men and women in churches.

Elsewhere, it is etymologically unsurprising, perhaps, that intersexual, now most often used to refer to individuals with physical characteristics of both sexes, was originally used to refer to interactions between men and women; but the existence of a fleeting, obsolete usage in which those with homosexual feelings were understood as having psychological or emotional characteristics of the opposite sex is less expected. Bisexual, similarly, has its origins in eighteenth and nineteenth century botany and zoology, and had developed the general sense ‘suitable for or involving both men and women’ well before it was used in 1906 to translate the German philosopher Otto Weininger’s use of bisexuell in his work Sex and Character.

We are on surer semantic and historical ground with two other important terms used to describe human sexualities.

Homosexual, Heterosexual, and Bisexual

The ultimate origins of the terms homosexual and heterosexual are well-known: the terms were coined in German by Károly Mária Kertbeny, a Vienna-born Hungarian journalist and opponent of the criminalization of homosexual activity between men in Prussian law, in a letter written in 1868 to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, an advocate of same-sex love between men. The route into English for Kertbeny’s terminology of sexual orientation is via the work of the pioneering psychiatrist and sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who borrowed Kertbeny’s words (via the work of another writer, Gustav Jäger) for his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).  It was in the American Charles G. Chaddock’s translation of Krafft-Ebing’s work into English that the adjective homosexual was long supposed to have made its debut in English, but our revision of these words has revealed a slightly earlier occurrence. John Addington Symonds was a Victorian critic, poet, and family man (Edward Lear wrote The Owl and the Pussycat for Symonds’ eldest daughter). He was also involved in several affairs with men, and was a passionate advocate of male–male love in various forms. His use of homosexual in his 1891 pamphlet A Problem in Modern Ethics, although dependent on his reading of Krafft-Ebing’s German text (which at points he translates directly for his readers), is nonetheless distinctive in using the term to argue against the German sexologist’s theory of acquired homosexuality and to suggest changes in the laws criminalizing sex between men. Symonds, unlike Krafft-Ebing, Chaddock, and subsequent writers, seems almost studied in his reluctance to describe people as homosexual, while using the word to modify feelings, love, and sexual indulgence throughout his 1891 work. It is sometimes suggested that Symonds used homosexual in his 1873 work A Problem in Greek Ethics (first published in 1883), but the term does not appear in the first edition of the work, which refers instead to παιδεραστία, although later versions, after the author had read Krafft-Ebing, do use it.

Despite its ultimate origins in the advocacy of Kertbeny, much of the formal English vocabulary of sexuality, in its broadest divisions, is rooted in the work of psychologists and sexologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. British and American practitioners making their own studies of human sexuality or, more often than not, translating the work of their German counterparts, made the terms heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual (the latter a repurposing of an existing English adjective after the use of bisexuell by Otto Weininger and Krafft-Ebing) the basic toolkit through which any ‘deviation’ from the norm could be explored and categorized, before passing into more widespread use. Homosexual and its derivatives, thanks in large part to its treatment as a social problem and the criminalization of sexual acts between men in many jurisdictions, appears always to have been the most frequently used of these three major terms, and was almost certainly the first to break out of sexological and psychiatric contexts; the revised entry contains a report from The Scotsman reporting in 1907 on one of the series of trials relating to homosexuality in the upper echelons of German society known as the ‘Harden–Eulenburg affair’, in which the plaintiff, Count Kuno von Moltke, is said to have be ‘actually homo-sexual’.

Google NGrams diagram showing the relative frequencies of the words bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality, 1891–2012

The history of the treatment of homosexuality as an illness, and the prosecution of same-sex activity which made it so widely used has also ensured that homosexual has been, since the last decades of the twentieth century, rarely used as a term of self-identification, with gay and lesbian being preferred by most same-sex oriented men and women.

Kertbeny’s coinage of the term heterosexual allowed him to place his main subject, homosexuality, on an equal footing with attraction and activity between men and women, which had not previously seemed to be in need of its own terminology, except when it was distinguished from ‘sodomy’ or ‘pederasty’ as being ‘normal’, ‘natural’, or ‘lawful’. For a few of the first writers in English interacting with the work of the German sexologists, however, the use of heterosexual and its derivatives provoked confusion, as can be seen in the occasional early uses of heterosexuality to refer to ‘abnormal or perverted sexual appetites’ dealt with at sense 2 of the newly revised entry.

Trans Identities and Sources

The more formal language describing gender identity has been subject to more change and development than the vocabulary of sexual orientation inherited from the sexologists. In the 1950s, pioneering doctors Harry Benjamin and D. O. Cauldwell seemed to offer neat hormonal and surgical solutions to problems of misalignment within a clear binary system. This model was encoded in Benjamin and Cauldwell’s popularization of transsexual and its derivatives, itself an attempt to improve on a model in which all these people were treated as manifesting a form of transvestism. In the later 1960s and 1970s, increasing numbers of people whose sense of themselves did not correspond to society’s conventional notions of the relationship between sex and gender came to reject these classifications and their associations. Instead, they developed or repurposed their own linguistic tools to express their varying identities.

Although transgenderism first makes an appearance in a textbook on Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965, the terms transgenderal, transgenderist, and the more familiar transgender all seem to make their first appearances over the succeeding decade in periodicals and conference proceedings produced within the very communities seeking to define themselves and their experiences (rather than from clinicians, psychologists, or social scientists engaged in their study). This specific context of publication and dissemination has meant that it has often been more difficult for us as lexicographers to track these words back to their origins than it is for the sexuality terms appearing in weighty and widely distributed medical textbooks half a century and more earlier.

Fortunately, we now have access to growing numbers of publications produced for those with a non-conventional gender identity or expression or their admirers, which rarely reached academic libraries, through initiatives like the Digital Transgender Archive. Through the DTA we’ve been able to search periodicals from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, such as Female Mimics International, Chrysalis Quarterly, TV–TS Tapestry, and Drag, providing us with first quotations for three senses each of transgendered and transgender, and—among the personal ads—for bi-minded (a term now largely superseded by the newer bi-curious), while research by trans historian and activist Cristan Williams has identified what appears to be earlier evidence for transgenderist and transpeople (though the sources are difficult to verify and date precisely). As well as antedatings to our existing entries and senses, these magazines and newsletters have also given us other examples of the language of trans identity and experience in use by trans people before the digital age.

Similar natural, typical uses are also found in the communities of shared interest and experience which increasingly found a home and forum for discussion on the Usenet newsgroups in the 1990s and early 2000s, and our earliest illustration of the very recent (1996) coinage agender alongside pre-existing terms such as transgender comes from Usenet in 2005 (albeit from a newsgroup devoted to mainstream U.S. politics). Newsgroups connecting transpeople also provide us with our first evidence for cisgender, cissexual, and cis, often controversial but linguistically successful (judging by their rapid spread) attempts to describe those of us who are not transgender or transsexual.

Returning to expressions of sexual identity, Usenet provides us with quotations showing the development of asexual and related terms: originally used in this context in discussions asking which of men or women is the more sexual and which the more asexual sex, in the early 1990s it became a term embraced as an identifier by those with no sexual feelings for anyone. Twitter has, once again, proved its usefulness to the OED, giving us access to examples of straightforward use by people choosing language which suits their own identity.

(Occasionally, though, more traditional and surprisingly mainstream sources have provided us with the earliest evidence we’ve been able to find: our first quotation for transgendered comes from the Iowa TV Magazine section of the Des Moines Sunday Register in 1970, in a reference to the forthcoming film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge, starring Raquel Welch as the novel’s eponymous heroine.)

Umbrella Terms and Wildcards

These days, the terms transgender and trans are both frequently used to refer to a broad range of non-traditional gender identities, experiences, and expressions. While in the past both transgender and trans have been used almost interchangeably with the terms transsexual and transvestite, the diversity of people’s experience combined with a sense of solidarity and common cause have fuelled a desire to express this grouping more clearly and distinctively. Two attempts to do this make their first appearance in the OED in this update, and both appear to have their origins in the mid-1990s. The first turned a verbal metaphor—the umbrella term—into a visual representation before turning it back into a new verbal shorthand. The idea of the transgender umbrella appears to have started life in the early- to mid-1990s, in diagrams showing how transgender could be used as a blanket term for a range of gender behaviours then usually given their own discrete labels:  transsexual, transvestite, drag, androgyne, transgenderist, and others:

 An early (1994) depiction of the transgender umbrella

In the intervening quarter century, other gender identities and expressions have been recognized as being covered by newer interpretations of the transgender umbrella, from masculine women and feminine men to hijra, two-spirited people, and those who identify as genderqueer, or to ‘encompass any individual who crosses over or challenges their society’s traditional gender roles and/or expressions’.

Another attempt to convey the idea of inclusivity within a wider community also makes its first appearance in the OED with this update, representing a novel strategy for linguistic innovation. Trans* (sometimes known as ‘trans star’ or ‘trans asterisk’) is first recorded in 1995, but has been increasingly common over the last decade in some contexts. Rather than the pictorial and metaphorical representation of wider coverage and application which inspires transgender umbrella, trans* looks to the technological developments of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to express the idea of inclusion within a single community (and single expression) of widely varying but shared experience and interest. Adopting the asterisk as wildcard, used for any number of characters or an empty string in regular expression searching of electronic text, trans* is to be understood as having the same broadly inclusive coverage as the transgender umbrella. Although not a unique example of this kind of neologism (variants of the LGBT initialism have carried their own asterisk, and are now frequently extended in signification by the addition of a plus sign; we might also compare the earlier use of x to represent an unknown or variable quantity in the gender-neutral title Mx), trans* is—with trans (sans asterisk or star), transgender, and the notion of the transgender umbrella—one of a number of strategies currently being used to express the idea of complexity and diversity within a single heterogeneous group.

Undeniably, the world has changed significantly in many ways  in the 120 or so years since Krafft-Ebing and his fellow sexologists began to explore different manifestations of human sexuality (under which heading they also considered questions which we would treat as aspects of gender identity). However, in terms of social attitudes and behaviour, few things  have changed quite as radically as our attitudes to sex and gender, and although many questions arising from these developments remain vexed, it seems probable that the language with which we deal with these issues will continue to evolve and adapt to fit our changing attitudes and understanding.