More than just a dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary tracks the history of words through time. Some words gain new or additional meanings, such as “gay” or even “computer” (which once referred to people who made calculations and not machines).
In other cases, the OED introduces relatively new words and phrases, such as “globalization” in the 1970s, “fast food” in the 1980s, “tween” in the 2000s and “Googling” in 2006.
Accordingly, academics use the OED as a way of measuring cultural shifts. For example, “fast food” may be discussed in terms of a “fast food culture,” and in contrast to an earlier, perhaps better time, where people ate homemade meals together as a family.
The OED released 500 new words last month, among which is “cisgender.” According to the OED, the prefix “cis” means “on this side of,” and is “opposed to trans or ultra, across, beyond.”
Cisgender, or “someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth,” is one of two words recently introduced by the OED that combine a prefix with “gender.”
The second new word is “transgender,” which was introduced in 2003 and is defined as “a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.”
While gender is a familiar word, not everyone interprets or uses this word in the same way. In particular, some view gender as interchangeable with “sex,” in both cases, meaning male/female status.
Others reserve “sex” strictly for biological sex (as defined by reproductive organs and sex chromosomes), and they use “gender” to identify the cultural and social aspects of being male or female, such as the ways in which “feminine” behaviors are associated with females and “masculine” behaviors with males.
The word cisgender is a reminder that not everyone enjoys the privilege of comfort with the gender that one is assigned. It is also a reminder that everyone should think carefully about their own personal identity, and in particular, their gender identity.
For example, Julia Serano (who used the word “cisgender” back in 2007, in her feminist transsexual manifesto, “Whipping Girl: a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity”) points out that anti-trans discrimination is usually directed toward trans women and not trans men.
To explain why this is the case, Serano enlists a much older word than either transgender or cisgender — “misogyny.”
Serano argues that feminine characteristics are still often treated as secondary or inferior to masculine ones, making the trans woman (who gives up male privilege) a figure of ridicule.
Cisgender is a word that can encourage those who are comfortable with their own “assigned” gender and sex identity to take stock of the gendered behaviors that they admire, desire or reject out of hand, in both themselves and the people they love — and to think about why these behaviors spark such a response.
Language is, of course, a social phenomenon, as new words mark (and also help to spark) changes of thought and perspective. The OED’s definition of “cisgender” marks its coherence within a larger constellation of newly introduced words (e.g. transgender; gender-queer; gender-fluid) that present new ways of thinking about gender identity and its relationship to biological sex and sexuality.
Until relatively recently, there was only one predominant way for transgender people to talk about their experience with gender. This was gender dysmorphia, defined as the incredibly alienating feeling of inhabiting the wrong body.
New words like “gender-queer” or “gender-fluid” do not disprove or negate the experience of gender dysmorphia; instead, they provide people who do not identify with the gender or sex that they were “assigned” an alternative way for understanding this lack of identification.
Identifying with a gender one was not assigned at birth may be perceived as pleasurable, for example, rather than painful; or, as Judith Halberstam argues in “Female Masculinity,” a person may choose to inhabit a space between genders without trying to claim one or the other as “home.”
As feminist theorist Mimi Marinucci has recently noted, human beings tend to think in opposites, particularly when defining groups of people, i.e. “men” makes sense only when defined against “women,” and the same can be said for “gay” and “straight.”
There is nothing innately wrong with this practice. The trouble is, however, that one group of people always tends to get devalued.
New ways of thinking about gender identity are not inherently more progressive than those they challenge or seek to replace. But what they can do is provide multiple ways for people to think about and name their experiences.
At the same time, new words should respond to the ways in which people are already thinking about their experiences. Cisgender is no longer confined to merely academic settings, as was the case in the 1990s. That the OED defines cisgender suggests people are already naming an experience that has previously been treated as so natural that it did not need a name.
Elizabeth Neiman is an assistant professor in both English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine.
Correction: This post was updated to say “Googling” was added to the dictionary in 2006, not in the 1990s.