There is an increase in public discourse on transgender rights this spring. Nevada is considering a bill that would provide discrimination protection to transgender people in housing, public accommodation and job protections, similar to laws in place for other protected minorities. A bill in Maine addressing public accommodation for transgender people is also in the news. Meanwhile, hate crime charges are being considered in the beating of a transgender woman who was trying to use the bathroom at a Baltimore-area McDonald’s.

Today, we address the language and meaning of words regarding transgender issues – many of them are actually very new words. We also uncover why English makes it particularly tricky to use transgender vocabulary at first glance. As a Dictionary.com user, you know the power of a well-used word, so read on and fortify your vocabulary.

The word transgender is a recent addition to English. In conversational use as early as the 1960s, “transgender” entered the dictionary in the early 1990s. Trans- is a Latin prefix meaning “across or beyond.” Gender shares the same Latin root as genus. As a classifier for male and female, “gender” replaced “sex” in the 20th century. This was a trend started by feminist writers who wanted to highlight the biological attributes of males and females separate from their social characteristics.

While the word transgender is very new, the idea of behaving outside a traditional gender identity role is quite old: A whole level of meaning to Shakespeare’s plays, often in the form of double entendre revolves around the men dressed up as women to act in female roles.

Discussion around the bills under consideration in Maine and Nevada refer to transmen and transwomen, compounds originating from the word transgender that apply the familiarity of the word and its idea to individual people.

Ambiguity means doubt, but it also means “capable of being two things.” Gender ambiguity is a term that describes the blurring of lines dividing male and female gender identity.

Linguistically, English does not like ambiguity. Pronouns in English are gender-designated (he/she, him/her). The only gender-neutral singular pronoun in English is “it”, which isn’t useful because it applies to objects, not people. The gender-neutral plural “they” is also an easy go-to, but is grammatically incorrect because it is plural, not singular, and can’t be applied to an individual.*

The bills in Maine and Nevada include the phrase “public accommodation.” This is a phrase first used by the disabled access movement of the 1970s, which culminated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Examples of public accommodation include braille text in elevators for blind people and wheelchair accessible doorways for wheelchair users. The language addresses accessibility and accommodation in spaces that are privately owned but open to the public, such as cafes and banks and bookstores. An example often cited for public accommodation for transgender people is the use of gender-specific bathrooms in public places.

We’ve covered some of the new words in a quite new but very important topic. As always, your comments are welcome on the Hot Word, but we want to remind you to keep the debate civil – any uncivil comments will not be published.

* Special thanks Zinnia Jones.

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  1. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  December 9, 2013 - 3:45 am

    Oh. My. Gosh. This is _incredibly_ creepy!! (Sorry if _’s aren’t used for emphasis – there’s no bold/italic/underline thing here, and I got told off for using all caps.) People are born male or female. End of story. You might say, “I’m a woman/girl biologically, but I feel like a man/boy inside.” Well, play football, hang out with men/boys, don’t wear “girly” clothes, then. Or you might say, “I’m a man/boy biologically, but I feel like a woman/girl inside.” So do things a lot of women/girls usually do. But there’s no need to go to extremes! You are either a man/boy or a woman/girl, and changing that goes against God’s plan.

    To those who say that you can do anything you want, as long as you aren’t harming anyone: By trying to change your gender, you’re harming people who want to live the way God intended.

    To those who keep dragging the Bible into this: “_Male and female_ he [God] created them” (Genesis 1:27; emphasis mine). Touche.

    End of rant. If my comment offended you, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be uncivil, I’m just voicing my opinion.

    To Vera: I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I’ll be praying for you.

    To STaelyn: Thank you for “Trans 101.” (Although we shouldn’t need it in the first place! :( )

    This topic was so interesting, I read all 91 comments, which I almost never do. Sorry for the length.

  2. Britannya -  April 14, 2013 - 9:12 am

    It is as simple as this…..let people live the life they want lo live. as long as they are productive & happy & do what they have to with there family. I am a trans-Woman who only wants the simple things in life, The most simple things. I want to sit out side & have my coffee wile I feel the air & the sun on me, wile I watch my kids play & I have all this now but it was not so simple when I 1st started my journey. but I do see & have lived the hell some of us go threw to get to this passable status. How awful is it that u cannot go to the bathroom just because you are in a part of your life were u don’t belong to one side or the other & u either explode or u break the law and go to the bathroom behind some building? Not fair, But then again I don’t think is fair to spend our tax dollars having a 3rd gender bathroom, when these funds can go towards education & health care. are we that dumb as a society? But I also understand that some of the folks that call them self ” transgender ” are not & only play the role for sexual pleasure or endeavor’s witch makes me very upset just because it gives us ” the ones that live this way for ever ” a bad name leaves a bad taste in society when the true trans people just want to fit in as if nothing has happen. We need to focus on real true to life issues, Much of my sisters in transition have moved on to be better more productive people who now work in the CIA & in government just because they are able to be them self’s & not hide & have the fear of coming out & living the life they want. We are not criminals or rapist ,we are people who what to become better people, To serve out purpose in this earth to the highest potential & one cannot do this if u are not who you really want to be. and when you are who you want to be life smiles back at you & you will do more positive things on this earth…….that’s what is all about , is it not?

  3. GRANT -  February 5, 2013 - 5:55 am

    Just read this with all the comments; very informative, interesting and well worth the time to further educate myself on a topic I frankly knew little about and usually choose to ignore. Society’s attitudes have come a long way since the days of casually assigning the term “queer” and recoiling from folks we didn’t bother to take the time to become enlightened about! I am a straight, retired male with gay nephew (who is disatisfied with that status) and a gay niece (who is apparently completely accepting of and comfortable with her sexuality). Their sexual orientation makes no difference to me~~I love them both. I now have a better handle on the obstacles to societal understanding and acceptance that they have had to deal with since coming of age. Thank you Dictionary.com for this timely and informative piece!

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  6. SHIRLEY -  March 8, 2012 - 4:30 am

    I am a lesbian. My partner and I got screwed on our taxes AGAIN!! The mighty federal government does not recognize gay marriage.
    Me or my wife becoming a man would change all that now wouldn’t it.

  7. wondering -  November 14, 2011 - 2:45 am

    what is the differences between transgender and bisexual?

  8. Emily -  July 27, 2011 - 8:21 pm

    @Not OK: You’re judging people who you have never known, simply because you have heard that they are different. This is what led to the crucifixtion of Christians by the Roman Empire, people! Just let it be. What somebody decides to do with their life is THEIR OWN BUSINESS. I’ll bet that the people who are transgender or transexual feel like they are perfectly normal.

    In addition, the reason there is so much controversy over this, with all of the laws and such, is because people like you would persecute or turn a cold shoulder to them.

  9. Switchhttr69 -  July 4, 2011 - 6:56 pm

    I’ve seen some bloggers use “zie” instead of “she” or “he”; also “hir” in writing, but I’m not sure that solves anything when pronounced (would it sound like “her”?) Of course, the singular “they” has been around for centuries and would also solve the problem.

  10. WhiteAsh -  June 4, 2011 - 5:53 am

    I am very frustrated that grammarians keep insisting that “they” singular is incorrect. It has been in the speech of English for a very long time to fill the need of a third person singular animate indeterminate gender pronoun.

    I take my examples from the wikipedia article on singular they:
    “Eche of theym sholde … make theymselfe redy.” — Caxton, Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489)
    “Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock!” — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

    Give it up, grammarians, this is how people speak, it is a naturalized part of the language and it’s not going away, so just accept it already.

  11. Vera -  May 22, 2011 - 11:09 pm

    I wish there had been open discussions like this 20 years ago when after 28 years of marriage I found that I was married to a person who was born with male anatomy but whose brain longed to be female and felt like he was born into the wrong body. For the last few years of the marriage we were both miserable……….he trying to hide it from me and me………trying to figure out what was wrong in those last years of our marriage. After seeing a TV show and finding videos of my, then husband, dressed up as a woman, I finally confronted him. He said that he would talk about it once and that was it, but I demanded that we talk about it a lot. He explained how he wanted to be a woman and felt trapped in a male body. I tried to get psychological help for him, not knowing that this was not a curable problem. You can change the anatomy of a person surgically, but you can’t change that they feel like the opposite sex of the body they were born with. After many months of prayer, tears and soul searching I asked for a divorce and said to my husband, “I cannot be your wife, but I can be your friend.” The hardest thing I ever did was divorcing my husband whom I adored. I still adore him, but now “she” is still my best friend. She had breast augmentation but decided not to have the genital reassignment surgery. She takes hormones, considers herself a woman and I refer to her as such. I still grieve for my husband whom I feel is dead, for all intents and purposes, but I am thankful for my best friend and treasure her friendship. It was not an easy road for either of us, but it would have been a lot easier if people had been more open about it then, like they are now. I felt very alone and like I couldn’t discuss it with anyone. As for what those who pretend to know what God thinks, and bring the Bible into this kind of thing………….my philosophy is that He knows all the facts and only He has the right to judge for the Bible also says “Judge not that ye be not judged for as ye judge ye will be judged also,” I might not have the exact wording but if you care to look it up I think you will find my wording pretty close. I believe with all my heart that God loves all of his children, and that only He knows why we all have different orientations and paths to walk down in this life so only He can make fair judgements.

  12. Varina -  May 21, 2011 - 10:17 pm

    Thanks, Mark – you go ahead and rant, you rock!
    And thanks, Karen & STaelyn – well said!
    As for you, anti-transgender: You want to bring the Bible into this? Okay: Jesus said “and the greatest of these is love.” He didn’t say “except for homosexuals.” Neither did He exempt any other group. If you’re going to follow God and Jesus, follow ALL They told you to do.
    Can’t remember the representative’s name or the exact quote, but it went something like this: How many homosexuals does God have to make before we understand that He wants them around?

  13. Archon -  May 18, 2011 - 11:40 pm

    For Holly; point out tiny usage errors (in a dictionary column) and look pretty silly?

    Pendarvus’s Theorum of Why It Went Wrong – “It was only a little bit off!”

    “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For want of a horse, a message was lost. For want of a message, a battle was lost. For want of the victory, a kingdom was lost.”

    A translator made a tiny error in translating the reply from the Japanese after the Allies requested that they surrender near the end of the WW II. The Japanese said that they were “considering” the offer. He wrote that they were “ignoring” the offer, and the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

    Do you still think we should just ignore the little errors, and hope for the best? It won’t happen.

  14. Holly -  May 17, 2011 - 9:19 am

    For those of you commenting on the asterisk, it’s there to indicate a footnote. Am I the only one who automatically looks at the bottom of whatever I’m reading when I see something like that? For people who point out tiny usage errors, you look pretty silly.

  15. BethO -  May 17, 2011 - 9:09 am

    Of course (and I swear this is my last post), while “they” may be a good long-term plan, lots of people have shared other preferences and also that a woman who becomes a man is now “him”, plain and simple. Not suggesting we use ‘her’ & ‘him’, and then ‘they’ as some other category. I don’t mean that. I mean all be ‘they’.

  16. BethO -  May 17, 2011 - 9:04 am

    But people just kept using it as a singular, and eventually it had to be accepted. The cumbersome habit of writing he/she is sometimes avoided by writing ‘he’ and ‘she’ alternately, and a disclaimer at the beginning of certain texts explains the author’s plans to use pronouns in a less biased way…Marge Percy uses “per” in some places instead of “her” or “him” in the utopian novel “Woman on the Edge of Time”…lots of people have put significant effort into this problem. MacWhorter suggested that we just go with THEY…the trend has already begun!

  17. BethO -  May 17, 2011 - 8:58 am

    Linguistically, the singular/plural problem with “they” has been solved in casual speech, just not in writing…which tends to lag behind and resist change. Historically, pronouns can and do change! “You” was once laughable as a singular, and the proper term was “thou.” (Info from MacWhorter, Word on the Street)

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