Let’s just get this out there: I am an English nerd. I love grammar, poetry, literature, letters, words in general, and I spend most of my days, whether in class or elsewhere, thinking about the nature of words and communication. I find it fascinating that a single word can mean so many things, yet each word means something only because we give it that significance. My personal definition for pretty could actually be ugly or some other antithesis, but what gives words their power is the meaning we all, as a united English-speaking (or any other language) entity, entrust to them.
Over time, words change: in meaning, spelling, some even are dropped from the language, or added. According to TIME.COM, the words bromance and frenemy were added to the Oxford Dictionary of English in 2010, words I had never heard until a few years ago (TIME.COM). Language is constantly evolving. So how has the word gender evolved?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) specifies the origin of the word gender to be in the 1300’s. The first citation of the modern definition of the word, though, is from 1963. This modern definition states: “In mod. (esp. feminist) use, a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes” (“Gender,” 3b). In this way, gender evolved from a word meaning: “Kind, sort, class; also, genus as opposed to species” (“Gender,”1a). The word went from being a general term regarding different types of things to being a word specifically about sex.
The important part of this modern definition is its deviation from sex based only in biology. This definition admits there is also a social and cultural component to the development of the individual. Women are not merely women because they were born in the female sex, they are women because of the social and cultural influences affected on them.
It is important to realize that this definition, though close to what we discuss, is not our definition. Gender, in the sense that I talk about it, is an expression based on the individual. Sex and gender become two completely different things. Sex is biological, but gender is unpredictable. It is affected by every piece of who we are, what we experience, and how we feel. Sex is constrained while gender is fluid, changing, unable to be pinned down. We can only define it by saying how indefinable it is.
In a way, everyone is genderqueer because each person is an individual with his or her own experience and definitions. No one is capable of fitting into the trim little box the gender binary creates because there are no two people the same.
As you think about gender—and perhaps some other words you believe you can define—remember your own definitions are the ones which matter, whether they be of yourself or the world around you. Each person has their own world, and it is important to mold yours to fit yourself. Only by changing our own individual definitions can we seek change in the world.
“Gender.” Def. 1a. The Oxford English Dictionary. Online version November 2010. Accessed 2 March 2011.
“Gender.” Def. 3b. The Oxford English Dictionary. Online version November 2010. Accessed 2 March 2011.
TIME.COM. “Chillax! Bromance! It Must Be New-Words-in-the-Dictionary Day!” TIME.COM. 19 August 2010. Online. Accessed 2 March 2011. <http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/08/19/chillax-bromance-it-must-be-new-words-in-the-dictionary-day/>.