“Mx.” (pronounced “mix” or “mux”) is a gender-neutral honorific. It’s used by people who don’t want to be identified by gender, whether their gender identity isn’t well-represented by the older forms, or they just don’t want to offer that information or assume it when addressing someone else. “Mx.” was added to Merriam Webster’s unabridged dictionary in April, has begun to be used on official forms in the UK (the Royal Bank of Scotland has been an early adopter), and appeared in two recent stories in the New York Times, once as a preferred honorific for a Barnard College student who doesn’t identify as male or female, and once in a story about “Mx.” itself.
Linguistic experts say it is harder to change usage habits of words uttered frequently in speech, such as “she” and “he.” But a realignment in honorifics may be more quickly achieved because courtesy titles are less often spoken than written, like in the completion and mailing of government, health care and financial documents, as well as in newspapers and other media publications.
This second story, quoting Oxford University Press’s Katherine C. Martin, also notes that some of the earliest uses of “Mx.” were in the 1980s, “when some people engaged in nascent forms of digital communication and did not know one another’s gender.”
Likewise, “Latinx” aims to be more comprehensive and more inclusive than the older terms Latino and Latina. “The ‘x’ makes Latino, a masculine identifier, gender-neutral,” writes Raquel Reichard. “It also moves beyond Latin@ - which has been used in the past to include both masculine and feminine identities - to encompass genders outside of that limiting man-woman binary.”
This lights up my amateur linguist brain in all sorts of ways, but here’s one of them: the telescoping (maybe kaleidoscoping?) between usage, in all its messiness, and forms, in their desire for clear standards and finite options.
You can break that down further into usage within a community or group versus usage outside that community, and the formal protocols a publication like a newspaper or dictionary might follow versus paperwork or a database run by a business or government office. They all interplay with each other, and linguistic change happens or doesn’t happen through all of them.
And I guess the last thought is about how digital culture, by expanding and transforming the kinds of communities, identities, forms, and publications that are possible, can accelerate those changes or hold them back.
This tweet by NBC News is a good example: the tweet uses “Latinx” (and “Hispanic”) — the linked story, like the name of the news vertical and twitter account, overwhelmingly uses “Latino,” in both the body and the headline.
Or take Planned Parenthood. Many of the health provider’s affiliates have updated their intake forms and other paperwork and communication. The new language is more gender-neutral, gender-inclusive, and more specific, separating anatomy, sexual activity, and gender identity. The national office is working on a new style guide to help other affiliates make their own changes.
Language about certain kinds of birth control has changed as well. “Male condoms” and “female condoms” are now referred to as internal and external condoms at Planned Parenthood of New York City.
“The language we’re using today reflects the fact that gender is a spectrum and not a simple system, a binary system of male and female,” says [PPNYC’s Lauren] Porsch. “We really talk about having sexual and reproductive health services: women who have penises, men who have vaginas, and there are people with all different types of anatomy that may not identify with a binary gender at all,” she says.
Again, while the changes eventually get reflected in Planned Parenthood’s intake forms and other official language, it was implemented early in digital and social media — specifically, in response to users on Tumblr.
“The Tumblr audience is smart. They understand feminism. They understand that sex ed isn’t one-size-fits-all—even though that’s what they were taught in school,” says Perugini. “And they know that words matter. They didn’t see themselves reflected in the language we were using on our social media pages or our website, and they let us know.”
This is happening. It’s happening in progressive, diverse, digital communities first. And for all their fractiousness, and the inherent difficulty in dealing with areas as complex and personal as identity, gender, and sexuality, it does feel like some standards are emerging. These are words worth watching. If you work with digital technology and people (and yeah, that’s almost everyone), I hope you’re paying attention.