Q: The terms “gender assignment” and “sex assignment” give me pause. The use of the verb “assign” and noun “assignment” in this sense strikes me as off-pitch. Assigning is what the Sorting Hat does in sending a Hogwarts student to one of the school’s four Houses. Is there an interesting story here?
A: The use of the terms “sex assignment” and “gender assignment” for designating the sex of a newborn child is relatively rare, though an etymological case could be made for this sense of “assignment.”
We’ve found only 42 examples of “sex assignment” and 100 of “gender assignment” in recent searches of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.
None of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have entries for “gender assignment” and only one includes “sex assignment.” Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines it as “the determination or assignment of a baby’s sex, based on the appearance of external reproductive organs, and, sometimes, chromosomal testing.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include either term, though it has examples dating back to the 14th century of the verb “assign” used to mean determine, designate, specify, classify, categorize, and so on. Here are a few examples:
“And til seynt Iames be souȝte þere, I shal assigne / That no man go to Galis” (“And till Saint James be sought there, I shall assign [specify] that no man go to Galicia” (Piers Plowman, 1377, by William Langland). We’ve expanded the OED citation.
“Folke whom I neyther assigne bi name, nor as yet knowe not who they be” (The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance, 1533, by Thomas More).
“Who all assign its Altitude to be but about 27 inches” (Experimental Philosophy, 1664, by Henry Power).
And here are a few examples from contemporary standard dictionaries:
“assigned the new species to an existing genus” (American Heritage).
“However, further investigations are needed before assigning these Mexican specimens to a new status” (Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online).
“Though assigned male at birth, she appears most comfortable and in her element wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals when riding a big-wheel or playing with a tea set” (Merriam-Webster). The dictionary includes this among examples in which “assign” means to “fix or specify.”
The use of “sex assignment” or “gender assignment” for determining the sex of a newborn is relatively new. And the subject can be controversial, especially when the evidence is ambiguous, as in the earliest example we’ve found. This passage was published in the 1950s in a medical paper on intersexuality, having both male and female sexual organs or characteristics:
“Equally clearly the medical practitioner and the paediatrician need to be helped to form a correct opinion in the first place on the sex assignment and rearing of the intersexed infant.” From “Psychosexual Identification (Psychogender) in the Intersexed,” by Daniel Cappon, Calvin Ezrin, and Patrick Lynes, in the Canadian Psychiatric Journal, April 1959.
The first example we’ve seen for “gender assignment” uses the phrase in the linguistic sense—that is, in reference to languages that use gender to classify nouns, pronouns, and related words:
“Of course there may be dialect differences in the gender assignment of nouns” (from Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study, by the linguist H. Christoph Wolfart, published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, November 1973).
And here’s the earliest example we’ve seen of “gender assignment” used in the sense you’re asking about: “Gender assignment is based on the existing anatomy and a full understanding of the pathologic and endocrinologic reasons for the ambiguity” (Practical Gynecology, 1994, by Allan J. Jacobs and Michael J. Gast).
By the way, all but one of the standard dictionaries we consult have entries for “sex reassignment” or “gender reassignment,” commonly known as “sex change.” Some add the word “therapy” or “surgery” to the term.
The OED defines “gender reassignment” as “the process or an instance of a person adopting the physical characteristics of the opposite sex by means of medical procedures such as surgery or hormone treatment.”
The earliest Oxford example is from the late 1960s: “After gender reassignment surgery, some previously rejecting fathers become very affectionate” (“The Formation of Gender Identity,” by Natalie Shainess, Journal of Sex Research, May 1969).