Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Title Yourself "Mx" on Your Gas Bill-Because Small Acts of Linguistic Rebellion Can Change the World

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Title Yourself "Mx" on Your Gas Bill-Because Small Acts of Linguistic Rebellion Can Change the World

Article excerpt

Language matters. It defines the limits of our imagination. You don't have to be a gender theorist to understand that if we have only two ways of referring to human beings "he" or "she"--we will grow up thinking of people as divisible into those two categories and nothing more. So it is significant that, in late August, OxfordDictionaries.com an online resource created by the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary--added an entry for the gender-neutral title "Mx".

This is how it's defined: "a title used before a person's surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female". Earlier this year, the OED added to its lexicon the word "cisgender", meaning "not transsexual". That matters, too, because without a word for it, you were either "trans" or you were "normal".

Sweden has also recently added the gender-neutral pronoun "hen" to its dictionary. Pronouns such as "xe" and "they" (used to refer to a singular subject) are already in use in English as alternatives to "he" and "she". Many conservatives and professional pedants are furious--it's fussy, it's far too politically correct and how are you supposed to pronounce "Mx", anyway? So whose side should we be on?

By some accident of serendipity, the day I found out about all of this was also the day I met the feminist linguist Dale Spender. At 71, she is small and delicate and dangerous, like a cupcake full of razors. She was dressed from head to toe in purple: a lilac handbag, bright violet shoes, an elegant silk dress in swirls of fuchsia and lavender. The activist and author of Man Made Language could be the embodiment of Jenny Joseph's poem "Warning" ("When I am an old woman I shall wear purple ...") but Spender has worn the colour every day for decades, in honour of the suffragettes.

Swallowing my hero worship together with a lukewarm coffee, backstage at a writer's festival, I asked Spender what she thought, as someone who has long pioneered the politics of women's language, about the recent push towards a more gender-neutral vocabulary.

"It's the same argument we had in the 1970s, when we started using 'Ms'," Spender told me. The title "Ms" was promoted by feminists and widely adopted as an alternative to "Mrs" or "Miss"--the idea being that there was more to a woman's life than her marital status. "So many of us were getting divorced and leaving bad marriages and we didn't know how to refer to ourselves," Spender said. "I wasn't a 'Miss' any more but I definitely wasn't a 'Mrs'. They said the same thing back then--that 'Ms' was clumsy, that people didn't know how to pronounce it. But how about 'Mrs' or 'Mr'? They're hardly obvious!"

Spender reminded me that the Oxford English Dictionary has always been run by men and that mainstream lexicography had a male bias--it wasn't until 1976 that "lesbian" got an entry in what the feminist Mary Daly dubbed the "dick-tionary". …

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