by Rory GoryThe letter X is often used to represent the unknown or the indescribable. In English, there are so few words beginning with X that in Samuel Johnson’s famous early dictionary, X was defined as, “a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”
The mathematician and philosopher René Descartes used the letter X to represent variable quantities in equations. In language, especially for evolving technology, X has been harnessed as a way to describe new frontiers, such as Google X, SpaceX, or the iPhone X. Whether we embrace the unknown or fear it, X can stand for that uncharted territory.
As our understanding of gender expands from the binary of male and female to include intersex, nonbinary, and transgender people, we are exploring new ways of describing gender identity and expression—and the letter X has the power to help.
| Explore much more from Dictionary.com on Gender & Sexuality.
For example, the word folx, a modification of the word folks, has been used since the 1990s as a gender-neutral way to refer to members of the LGBTQ community. And now, the letter X is being used to modify other words to create gender-neutral language, including the honorific Mx., the alternative spelling of women as womxn, and the term Latinx in lieu of Latina or Latino.
What makes Mx. a gender-neutral title of respect?
An honorific is a “respectful title or form of address.” For men, the simple honorific Mr., abbreviated from Mister, is an appropriate title, regardless of whether the man being described is married or unmarried, a young adult or a senior.
For women, honorifics come with more historical baggage and complexity. There is Miss, for a young, unmarried woman. Mrs.—ultimately abbreviated from mistress, which used to more commonly refer to a female head of household, not an extramarital lover—is reserved for a married woman. And Ms., which can be used regardless of marital status, has been adopted by many women who do not want the associations of either Miss or Mrs.
A societal assumption that women must marry can lead some to believe women who use the honorific Ms. are young or single. Beyond concerns of sexism, the terms Mr./Mrs./Ms. can perpetuate the gender binary, forcing people to use either a male or female title of address, regardless of marital status or age.
Enter mysterious letter X, which renders the honorific gender-neutral: Mx.
The first known usage of Mx. is from a 1977 issue of the American magazine Single Parent, but it has since become more common in the 2000s. Mx. makes for a refreshingly neutral option to anyone who wants a title that can be used regardless of gender, age, or marital status.
How is womxn a more gender-inclusive term?
Masculine terms are often seen as a default option in language, and historically the word man has been used as a stand-in for all humans (e.g., Man, despite all his progress, is an imperfect creature). The word woman can been seen as a variant of the word man, frustrating feminists and their allies.
So, lesbian journals in the 1970s popularized the word womyn, pronounced identically to women but whose Y makes for a man-free spelling. Womyn‘s popularity declined in the 2000s, however, as the word began to be associated with TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, a term for “an advocate of radical feminism who believes that a trans woman’s gender identity is not legitimate.”
That made room for a new term that took advantage of the flexibility of X: womxn. The letter X avoids the sexism suggested by man and offers greater inclusivity and fluidity to genders beyond the male/female binary, such as for trans women or others who identify as women. Womxn is pronounced the same as woman or women.
Why are people using the term Latinx?
The word Latinx originated in the early 2000s online, but it was catapulted into mainstream media in part by the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub in 2016. The massacre took place at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that was hosting “Latin Night,” a weekly event that drew a primarily Latinx crowd.
| Rory Gory explains why we should pay attention to how we use the word bisexual.
In Spanish, –o is an ending that marks words as masculine in grammatical gender; –a is feminine. While the concept of gender in grammar isn’t the same as gender in culture, when it comes to referring to people, Latino or Latina forces a gender binary on Latin Americans. Also, when we borrow Spanish words into English, sometimes the masculine form is often used by default (like using men for all people); this imposes a gender onto English conversation that otherwise would not have occurred. So, Latinx, generally pronounced [luh–tee-neks] in English, offers a more gender-inclusive option for labeling ethnic identity in Spanish, English, and other languages.
While many still use the terms Latina and Latino, popular use of Latinx in mainstream outlets is giving the gender-neutral word staying power as an inclusive way to speak to Latin American people. Other Spanish-language pairs such as Chicana/Chicano and Filipina/Filipino are finding their neutral or inclusive counterparts in Chicanx and Filipinx, as well.
How can we continue making language more gender-inclusive?
Ultimately, the adoption of language depends entirely on the people who use the language. Whether or not a word crosses that tipping point into broader, more sustained usage is a matter of time, culture, and will.
Terms like Mx., womnx, and Latinx give us more diverse, inclusive language that also describes the unique lived experiences that come with belonging to a marginalized group. While we still have a long way to go, the letter X is a powerful and promising way to help change the way we think about gender and identity—through how we talk and write about them.
Rory Gory is the Digital Marketing Manager for The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, reach out to The Trevor Project for support at: thetrevorproject.org/help.
Rory’s work can also be found in Teen Vogue and them.