“Sex” or “gender”?

I began the previous post with a parenthetical slur on Americans (of which I am half-one), propping myself up on two creaky stereotypes:

  1. that Americans can’t (really) speak English, and
  2. that political correctness is in part to blame.

Specifically, the issue was which of these two words was correct in the specific context:

  • Sex, or
  • Gender

Well, I thought I might regale you once again with the opinion of Johnny Grimond, our (The Economist‘s) doyen of usage and author of our official Style Guide, in which style quite often becomes a window into a very British, ironic and sophisticated worldview. Here is Johnny on the matter:

Gender is nowadays used in several ways. One is common in feminist writing, where the term has a technical meaning. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” argued Simone de Beauvoir: in other words, one chooses one’s gender. In such a context it would be absurd to use the word sex; the term must be gender. But, in using it thus, try to explain what you mean by it. Even feminists do not agree on a definition.

The primary use of gender, though, is in grammar, where it applies to words, not people. If someone is female, that is her sex, not her gender. (The gender of Mädchen, the German word for girl, is neuter, as is Weib, a wife or woman.) So do not use gender as a synonym for sex. Gender studies probably means feminism.

See also Political correctness

That said, I seem to remember reading somewhere–and I wish I knew where–that Sandra Day O’Connor started using gender instead of sex when she got to the Supreme Court, because she was worried that the word sex would conjure up all the wrong images in her (male) colleagues’ minds during deliberations.

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15 thoughts on ““Sex” or “gender”?

  1. “Sex” has so much emotional baggage in Anglo-Saxon society – and not to speak of the word’s countless opportunities for those tiresome and puerile double-entendres, causing sniggers from the emotionally retarded – that I can quite understand Sandra Day O’Connor’s reluctance to use “sex” when with her male colleagues.

    So, why not “gender”, and the Economist style-guide be damned.

    I note with interest that in German, “Geschlecht” can mean either “sex” or “gender”. In French, “genre” can mean “gender”.

    • The Economist has decided to move past its own stricture on the usage of “gender”. In the February 6, 2010 issue, in reviewing “The Music Instinct”, the magazine writes:
      Unwilling to believe that music was altogether useless, Darwin concluded that it may have made man’s ancestors more successful at mating. Yet if that were so, you might expect one gender to be musically more gifted than the other, and there is no evidence of that. So what is the point of music?

    • Interesting that we break this rule in the Science section.

      We are having to break other rules in the Tech Quarterly. EG, rule = “film”, not “movie”. But movies are not films anymore ….

  2. Changes in language usage can affect even rather technical matters such as database design. I remember changing all the field names in the personnel database (during a major re-design), so that gender was used rather than sex. Of course, you could just change all the forms, queries and reports where the fields appear and hide the real name. If you do that (have one name for internal use and another for external use), it makes life difficult and confusing for the programmers.
    After all, sex has a double meaning in everyday speech, and one meaning is not really suitable in certain situations, as you point out with the example from Sandra O’Connor. English is an ever evolving language and we should not be opposed to such changes, even if they come from the wrong side of the Atlantic!

  3. I always use “gender” for the Sandra Day O’Connor reason. And maybe Johnny G is being wee bit disingenuous in saying feminists can’t agree on a definition. Does this mean that everyone can agree on a definition of sex? 🙂

  4. Since you referred to the Economist’s Style Guide in your posting, may I add to my earlier comment?

    The writer of the Style Guide appears to frown on euphemisms, like “disadvantaged”, preferring “poor”; and “hearing impaired”, preferring “deaf”.

    I assume that if one speaks of a country whose people don’t earn much, or otherwise have little money, one should call it a “poor” country.

    However, if I should come across a sentence describing a country as “poor” I wouldn’t quite know what it meant. Would it mean culturally “poor”? (which most “rich” countries arguably are); or economically “poor”? I think just saying “poor” is inadequate.

    As for “hearing impaired” and “deaf”, I think someone is “hearing impaired” if he can hear only a little; and “deaf” if he cannot hear at all. So “deaf” would be incorrect if applied to someone who hears only a little. The Style Guides’s writer would appear not to recognise this distinction.

    These examples may only be the tip of an iceberg of other indistinctions and inadequacies in the Economist’s Style Guide

    Perhaps it needs a re-haul.

  5. Well, not for the first time, you have formed a spontaneous coalition against The Economist’s style guide.

    Who says The Economist has no sex scandals?

    incidentally, it may amuse you that we did once debate the style guide internally: A couple of years ago I started an internal wiki. That turned out to be ahead of its time and it fell into disuse. But not before a subversive minority wrote a new wiki-style-guide.

    Johnny was not pleased.

  6. Very interesting, and the intercept between political correctness and lack of English skill takes us into a frightening demonic zone. Do you recall several years ago when a Washington DC government staffer named David Howard was forced to resign because he used the term ‘niggardly’ in a conversation and was accused ofa racial slur? A black day. No pun intended.

    Anyway, I’m reminded of that old joke about the person filling out the application form and in the blank next to “Sex” they write something inane like “not enough.” Based on this post, if the application form were updated and used the term “Gender” the joke responses could be things like ‘under development,’ or ‘in transition.’

    • I helped Cheri clear up a few crumbs as she worked very hard after her dinner party, Thomas. Her gates were firmly closed, but I had managed to sneak in over the hill, only to suffer serious injury from a barrage of 27 bullets. Anyway, Cheri took pity and gave me some leftovers.

      Some hangers-on were there who wanted some too. Sensual lovers, lovers of honour and lovers of pure form. As if reading my mind, Cheri booted out the first two lots and left me with the lovers of pure language. I shared all I had with them and they were very nice to me.

  7. In my Owners Manual for the Brain by Pierce J. Howard, it says the following:

    We must distinguish from the outset the difference between the male-female spectrum and the masculine-feminine. The former has to do mostly with anatomy and physiology; the latter describes behavior, attitude, and the mind. Figure 13.1 illustrates this distinction graphically. Graph A is about sex differences, graph B gender differences. Your sex is how your body is put together; your gender is about the role you engage in daily.

    So there you have it. Sex refers to tangible male versus female anatomy. Gender signifies intangibles, such as behavior, attitudes, and one’s perceived role in society.

    Hence, sex confusion is a lot rarer than gender confusion. Being confused about one’s gender is a cakewalk compared to being confused about one’s sex.

    Makes sense.

    • Interesting. I’m not familiar with this Mr Howard, but he wants us to see sex/gender not merely as a biological/grammatical but also an anatomical/psychological distinction.

      Can he (Mr Howard) do this? Does he have a license?

      If so, can I announce that henceforth there is also an indoor/outdoor distinction (we use sex inside but gender on the beaches and streets), or an inert/mobile distinction (we use sex when standing, gender when moving), or a happy/sad distinction (we use sex when we like our better halves, gender when we’re pissed off)…..?

      I’m just teasing you. Howard makes sense. But let’s admit that this was not the ORIGINAL context of those words.

    • Words have a tendency to transcend their original context. Soon to “google” will simply mean to search. (I googled my keys all over the apartment.)

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