Genderqueering the Dictionary

Merriam-Webster added a slew of new gender-related terms to its lexicon, including transphobia, cisgender, and genderqueer.



Transphobia. Cisgender. Genderqueer. These and a handful of other au courant terms used to talk about gender have officially made it into Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary. Founded in 1928, Merriam Webster has long served as an arbiter of the English language. So it's no surprise that some are upset over what they see as the dictionary company capitulating to "social justice warriors." 

But "we're not crusaders for anything but accuracy," said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of Merriam-Webster. Sokolowski explained to The Atlantic that April's new additions—which include gender-related terms such as gender reassignment, gender-fluid, and the gender-neutral honorifc Mx. as well as tech words like Bitcoin, dox, sexting, and revenge porn, and acronyms such as ICYMI (in case you missed it)—aren't special and Merriam-Webster routinely updates its lexicon. This update alone included 2,000 new words. 

The aim is for Merriam-Webster dictionaries to reflect the way people currently talk, not preserve some pristine version of vocabulary. "Most dictionaries take a firmly descriptivist approach, taking cues from the media and culture at large about what words mean and how their usage has evolved," The Altantic notes. 

On a page asking how words get into a Merriam-Webster dictionary, the company states that "the answer is simple: usage. To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it's used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them." Sources for discovering these new words include "books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications." A word must be cited in "a substantial number" and wide range of publications before it will make the cut. 

In the case of the new gender-related words, Sokolowski pointed out that many have been in usage since the 1990s. And while some may worry that their inclusion in the dictionary now endorses a particular conception of sex or gender, he insists that "the dictionary is not a political document." In including these new gender-related words, Merriam-Webster is simply "defining what the label used to refer to" some people means. "We're describing the word and how it's used in the language."

In case you're curious, here are a few of the new Merriam-Webster definitions. 

Cisgender: (adj.) of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth 

Genderqueer: (adj.) of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female

Gender identity: (noun) the totality of physical and behavioral traits that are designated by a culture as masculine or feminine, 2:  a person's internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male or female

Gender reassignment: (noun) the act or process of changing from living as a person of one sex to living as a person of the opposite sex by undergoing surgery, hormone treatment, etc. to obtain the physical appearance of the opposite sex