The Grammarphobia Blog

“Gender” bending

Q: Is “gender” a substitute for “sex”? (It’s a good thing I used quote marks!) I’ve always thought “gender” should be used for words that change endings in other languages. When we speak of someone’s sex, shouldn’t we use “sex” instead of gender?

A: I also prefer the word “sex” in referring to the two sexes, but “gender” has become an acceptable substitute. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary accept phrases like “the feminine gender” or “gender roles.”

Nevertheless, I’d hate to see “gender” replace “sex.” The word “sex” (from the Latin sexus) has long meant either of the two divisions – male or female – that characterize living things. By extension, it has come to mean the sex act.

“Gender,” on the other hand, has long been a grammatical term that describes the way some languages categorize words by sex (masculine, feminine, or neuter).

Perhaps it’s inevitable that as we speak more openly about sex we feel a need for a more neutral word to refer to the Great Divide. But to my ears “gender” sounds prudish as an alternative to “sex.”

I should note, however, that both “sex” and “gender” have been used over the years to refer to the sexual act as well as the sexual divide. The noun “gender,” for instance, was used for the male or female sex back in the 14th century, and the verb “gender” was used for the sex act as far back as the 15th century.

Now that’s an example of “gender” bending!

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