‘Gender’ vs. ‘Sex:’ Why I’m fascinated by the shape-shifting nature of words

In a way words are shape-shifters. We think of them as static in their meaning, but that is far from the truth. They change constantly, they shift shapes and shades of meaning, even mid-sentence, mid-conversation, but especially across generations and boundaries of time and space.

But actually it is we who do the shape-shifting for the words, for words are nothing in and of themselves. They are mere sounds, in their more elemental form, meaningless sounds without us human beings to imbue them with meanings. But we change those meanings, too.

Case in point: the word ‘gender’ was recently brought to my attention again. It has shifted meaning and now has taken over the meaning of male/female designation, as in “What gender was the person?” or “People of either gender.” And I accept that. That is the new meaning.

Why accept that? Because language change is inevitable, and because this meaning of ‘gender’ has gained wide use. But I like another meaning better, because it lets me frame men, women, and culture in a more interesting way.

I’m a language, literature, linguistics, and culture teacher-type, so I’ve been acculturated to understand that language gender has nothing to do with sex. Words in German, French, Spanish and a host of other languages have gender – grammatical gender. This gendering has nothing to do with sex or people, for the most part, and everything to do with language itself. So in German ‘milk’ is feminine (die Milch), while in French it is masculine (le lait). ‘Moon’ is masculine in German (der Mond), feminine in French (la lune), and so forth and so on. It has nothing to do with the humanness of words, nothing at all. But I digress.

In the “olden days” when I was young, we didn’t have a gender unless it was grammatical gender; we had a sex: male or female. But people shy away from talking about a person’s sex, because of the other meaning of the word: ‘intercourse,’ or ‘sexual intercourse.’ Oh – and we shy away from the word ‘intercourse’ in its many forms (social intercourse and verbal intercourse), because the default meaning for ‘intercourse’ has become ‘sexual intercourse.’ But I digress again. In the past one clear denotation of the word ‘sex’ meant whether one is male or female: what sex was the person? It is still used some, but in common parlance ‘gender’ has taken over.

But so? Well, in recent linguistic circles the word ‘gender’ has taken on an interesting meaning. As I said, it used to mean, in the “olden days,” grammatical gender. That was the default meaning. We didn’t talk about people’s gender. We talked about people’s sex (male or female). And sexual intercourse – well, we hardly talked about that at all. If we did, we used different words!!!

Today scholars use ‘gender’ as a verb (‘to gender,’ ‘society gendered that person as…’) or especially as a past participle of a verb (‘to be gendered’) to talk about something very significant: the difference between someone’s sex (male or female [although there are even issues there because some people are not clearly male or female physically]) and how society has ‘gendered’ that person. So ‘gender’ has shifted shapes in yet another way.

In other words, for many of us it is physically clear as to what sex we are. But how society defines male and female is a whole other animal. And that definition is fluid across societies and time. So, for example, a man, in society’s eyes, does not carry a purse, but in some decades in Germany, men did carry what looked like a purse, and no one thought a thing of it. In some societies, a real woman shaves her armpits and legs; in others that is not a criterion of being a clean and acceptable person of the female sex. If men had shaved in the 1950’s, they would have been deviant. Now, men who don’t shave their chests aren’t very acceptable to certain segments of the population. If you wear pantyhose you are not a man, except ….

Babies are gendered from the time they are born. How many people will go to the girl infants’ section of the department store to dress their baby boys or to the boy infant section to dress their baby girls? They are already (usually willingly) made to conform to “blue for boys” and “pink for girls” and never “pink for boys,” for it is worse for a boy to be dressed in pink than a girl to be dressed in blue. (It is worse for a boy to seem like a girl than a girl to seem like a boy. Sissies are worse than tomboys.) But I digress yet again.

So I like differentiating between ‘sex’ (male/female) and ‘gender’ (what different societies say is real male and real female), because it foregrounds the fact that society determines what you can do and still be accepted as a woman/girl or man/boy. If you deviate, then there are punishments, from the silly to the horrific.

I love looking at the ways words change (the way we change words), and the way those changes show shifts in our understanding of reality. The male-female spectrum is especially rich, and I enjoy thinking about how the following words are not simply mirror images of or analogous to each other, but how they carry very different meanings (positive or negative) for men or women and how they can (must) be used so differently from one another:

Don Juan vs. femme fatale
ladies’ man vs. slut
master vs. mistress
lord/Lord vs. lady (note that the latter can never be God, but the former can)
god/God vs. goddess (note possible sexual connotations of the latter; the latter is usually not a designation for the divine, whereas the former often is)
king vs. queen (note possible sexual connotations of the latter)
gigolo vs. whore
male prostitute vs. female prostitute

What is fascinating is that if we begin to do association games with these words, we can bring to the surface that which we know implicitly. In other words, it’s like grammar. We know our grammar implicitly, then we learn about it explicitly in school and become much more aware of how language works. The same is true for the cultural connotations of words. We know them implicitly, but are not aware of them. When we study and analyze them, we become aware of how our culture works.


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