Q: I’ve just seen the phrase “African-American and Latinx voters” in a New Yorker article about Evangelicals. In the article, male speakers are identified as “Latino” and female speakers as “Latina,” while the collective adjective is “Latinx.” First I’ve seen it. Have you?
A: You can find the term “Latinx” (pronounced la-TEEN-ex) in several standard dictionaries, though its use as a gender-neutral or nonbinary term for someone of Latin American origin is controversial.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says “Latinx” is an adjective describing people “of, relating to, or marked by Latin American heritage—used as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.” The dictionary’s examples include “the oldest of three girls in a tightknit Latinx family” and “the district’s primarily Latinx community.”
The online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a similar adjectival definition and suggests that the “x” in “Latinx” is derived “from the use of x as a variable or an unspecified factor, as in mathematics.”
Oxford Dictionaries Online says “Latinx” can be a noun as well as an adjective. The dictionary’s noun examples include both “Latinx” and “Latinxs” as plurals: “a career network for Latinx who are looking for jobs” … “the books share stories of the civil rights struggle for African Americans, Latinxs, and LGBTQ people.”
Oxford Dictionaries adds that the use of “Latinx” as “a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina” was “perhaps influenced by Mx,” a nongendered alternative to “Mr.” and “Ms.” The term “nonbinary” refers to people who identify as neither male nor female.
“Latinx” is one of several similar terms that have been coined in recent years by people who object to the traditional male and female sexual identities. Others include “Latino/a,” “Latine,” and “Latin@” (with the @ symbol interpreted as a combination of the feminine “a” and masculine “o” endings).
(The older, more established noun and adjective “Hispanic” is gender neutral, but some people of Latin origin object to it, associating the term with the Spanish conquest of the Americas.)
“Latinx” is the only one of the recent coinages to make it into standard dictionaries. As far as we can tell, “Latinx” began appearing in print in 2015, though the term was being googled as far back as September 2004, according to Google Trends, which tracks search queries.
The earliest written example we’ve seen for “Latinx” is from a July 17, 2015, Targeted News Service report about plans for a Green Party rally a week later across from police headquarters in Ferguson, Mo. One of the scheduled speakers is identified as “Andrea Merida, co-chair of the Green Party of the United States and member of the party’s Latinx Caucus.”
As we’ve said, the use of “Latinx” is controversial, especially among people familiar with Spanish, a gendered language in which nouns have masculine and feminine endings, and the masculine plural is used when genders are mixed. Some Spanish speakers have complained that the “x” ending is grating, linguistically illegitimate, or elitist.
However, we’re discussing the use of “Latinx” in English here, not Spanish. English is a nongendered language in which “x” endings are unusual but not unknown—for example, “jinx,” “lynx,” “minx,” and “sphinx,” not to mention “fix,” “nix,” “lox,” and “box.”
We wonder, though, whether standard dictionaries may have moved too quickly to accept a term that showed up in print only a few years ago and that is still unknown to most English speakers.
The courtesy title “Mx.” (usually pronounced MUX, MIX, MEX, or EM-EX) has been seen in writing since the late 1970s, though it’s better known in the UK than the US.
The honorific, which appears in several American and British standard dictionaries, is widely accepted in the UK by government offices, universities, and businesses. It can be used on British passports, drivers’ licenses, bank documents, mail, and so on. As is the general rule with honorifics, “Mx.” has a period in American dictionaries but not in British.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, explains that “Mx was originally offered as an alternative to Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms, as a means to avoid having to specify a person’s gender.”
But in later years, the dictionary adds, the honorific “has frequently been adopted as a title by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female (e.g. transgender or intersex people).”
The earliest gender-neutral example for the honorific in the OED is from a short story by Pat Kite in the April 1977 issue of The Single Parent magazine: “Maybe both sexes should be called Mx. That would solve the gender problem entirely.”
The OED’s first nonbinary example is from an Oct. 19, 1998, post to a Usenet diet newsgroup in the UK: “Occasionally I have used the title ‘Mx’ before my name, with the idea that it leaves in question whether I [am] a woman or a man or somethinng [sic] in between.” (The bracketed interpolations are part of the Oxford citation.)
As for “Hispanic,” the OED describes it as a noun or an adjective for a “Spanish-speaking person, esp. one of Latin-American descent, living in the U.S.” The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun is from the Sept. 24, 1972, issue of the New York Times Magazine:
“The fictional melting pot has become a pousse-café in which every layer is jealous of, or hostile to, every other layer; in a fever of ethnicism, Italians, Jews, Orientals, Blacks, Hispanics and others have withdrawn into themselves.” (A pousse-café is an after-dinner drink of various liqueurs poured in layers of different colors.)
The dictionary’s first example for the adjective is from a 1974 Congressional report: “For statistical or policy purposes Hispanic Americans do not presently exist in most agencies of the government.” (From “Economic and Social Statistics for Spanish-Speaking Americans,” a report on hearings before the House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service.)