Speak Media


News & insights


Word of the Week: 'gender'


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘gender’.

The Vatican is facing a backlash for rejecting the idea that people can choose or change their own gender. Its pronouncement, aimed at those who teach young Catholic children, speaks of an “educational crisis” around the issue – one that it claims will destabilise the family institution. 

The text, titled ‘Male and female he created them’, poses a challenge to more fluid conceptions of gender and sexuality by suggesting there is only ‘male’ or ‘female’, and that to be otherwise is to go against what is natural. A view that many LGBTQ groups say excludes the trans and LGBTQ experience altogether.

As the phrase ‘Vatican gender’ gains status as a breakout search on Google Trends, as pride month kicks off across the world – and as Queer Eye favourite Jonathan Van Ness makes headlines after announcing he is ‘non-binary, non-gender conforming, and happy’ – we attempt to unpick a word that is loaded with political and social significance.

What does ‘gender’ mean?

In the noun’s simplest form, the Cambridge Dictionary states ‘gender’ is: “the physical and or social condition of being male or female.”

It’s important to recognise the distinct differences between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. While the former refers to culturally constructed notions of identity (i.e. “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – Simone De Beauvoir), ‘sex’ refers to one’s biological nature – and the two do not always conflate. 

Emphasis on this widespread, and historical, tendency to use ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably is addressed with a resigned shaking of the head in The Times’ style guide:

“Gender: It is a term of grammar. Prefer not to use as a synonym of sex, although this may be a lost cause.”

Right on cue, the Urban Dictionary shares its similarly nonplussed take on the modern ‘gender’ conundrum: “What society is conflicted about for some apparent reason”.

Etymology of ‘gender’

Dating back to the Latin ‘genus’ meaning “stock, family, rank or nation”, the word evolved into Old French as the similarly divisive: “kind, species, gender or class”. The word’s roots are based in categorisation and ultimately division – something today’s move towards fluidity aims to stamp out. 

The word eventually gained its male-or-female sense from the early 15th century but it wasn’t until the 1950s that sexologists and, later, feminists and gender theorists, began to interrogate the term. 

Fluid language

Today, the meaning of ‘gender’ has (at least among more progressive individuals and societies) moved beyond the binary, giving way to new expressions of sexual identity. 

As the Guardian’s style guide states under its lengthy entry for ‘gender’: “Our use of language reflects our values, as well as changes in society”.

Hence, ‘genderqueer’, ‘gender nonconforming’, ‘bi-gender’, ‘gender-fluid’, the ‘third gender’ are evolving as accepted terms for those who feel they do not fit into the strict category of male or female – but as we’ve seen from the Vatican’s response, such linguistic developments can engender controversy.

Jonathan Van Ness, hairdresser and Queer Eye star, only yesterday announced being non-binary, providing some clarity for those who may still be confused by the lingo, simply stating: “some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman”.

Read more:

Word of the Week: ‘trump’

Word of the Week: ‘conservative’