A Linguistic Kerfuffle

Photo by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash

My friend Jewel sent me a Washington Post article last week about Elon Musk and the term cisgender. In case you don’t know, cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity coincides with the sex with which the person was born. It’s in contrast to transgender, where one’s physical sex and inner gender identification differ.

It seems that Elon has his panties in a bunch over the term, threatening to suspend anyone from Twitter who uses it. Elon cites an anti-trans activist who maintains that a “pedosexual” doctor (who has been accused of pedophilia) created the term in 1991. On account of this tainted history, Elon regards the term as a slur.

The article describes a much longer history, leaving out the doctor altogether. As early as 1914, the prefix cis was being used by people researching gender identity and sexual orientation. The Oxford English Dictionary has traced the actual term cisgender to a University of Minnesota grad student, who used it in a 1994 paper. The OED officially added the word in 2015.

So, about that cis. It’s a Latin preposition meaning “on this side of.” That’s all it means. Cisgender people feel firmly “on the side of” the gender associated with their physical accoutrements. Others, such as transgender people (trans meaning “across, on the other side of”) feel as though these are two different sides–physical sexuality vs. gender identification.

To be blunt, the cisgender option permits us to avoid normal as a descriptor, which implies that trans, non-binary people, and others are not normal, which is indeed stigmatizing. The term pulls us away from judgmental sounding labels. There’s nothing debasing or dehumanizing about it.

Here’s a balanced discussion of the language kerfuffle in Forbes magazine. Please share your thoughts.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Wednesday Word and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Linguistic Kerfuffle

  1. Kathy says:

    Sarah–Yes, that’s a good one. I love the kerpluck analogy.

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    Fascinated by the word kerfuffle!!!

    From: Merriam-Webster.com

    The Evolution of Kerfuffle

    Fuffle is an old Scottish verb that means “to muss” or “to throw into disarray”—in other words, to (literally) ruffle someone’s (figurative) feathers. The addition of car-, possibly from a Scottish Gaelic word meaning “wrong” or “awkward,” didn’t change its meaning much. In the 19th century carfuffle, with its variant curfuffle, became a noun, which in the 20th century was embraced by a broader population of English speakers and standardized to kerfuffle, referring to a more figurative feather-ruffling. There is some kerfuffle among language historians over how the altered spelling came to be favored. One theory holds that it might have been influenced by onomatopoeic words like kerplunk that imitate the sound of a falling object hitting a surface.

  3. Kathy says:

    Doreen–I didn’t get it until I looked it all up for this post. I didn’t even know that “cis” was a Latin preposition, but it’s in my Latin dictionary!

  4. Kathy says:

    Roger–You’re welcome!

  5. Kathy says:

    Zac–Yes, I guess that’s what upsets DeSantis, et al. They don’t even think there is such a thing as trans, and so why name its opposite?

  6. Zachary Whitely says:

    Using the word ’normal’ to refer to cis-gender people is a way of othering trans people. Which isn’t to say that all cis-gender people need to spend time tying themselves in knots to name and identify themselves as cis (the world helpfully does that for them already through stereotypes).

    BUT… they should be replacing the word ’normal’ with ‘cis’ if they’re trying to describe their own gender identity.

    There’s a meme going around that summarises is quite nicely:
    Cisgender people use ‘cis’ as a slur because they use ‘trans’ as a slur.

  7. Roger Talbott says:

    Thank you for this.

  8. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    I love that cisgender eliminates the use of normal/abnormal. What is normal anyway? These days people keep making reference to the “new normal,” which is . . . ?

  9. Doreen says:

    Thanks Kathy. I didn’t realize I didn’t understand this until I read your post! Thanks for clarifying, and your investigations into our language. Sad that this is just another way for people to take sides.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *