big words

Wait, Cisgender Wasn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary Already?

Photo: Caleb Jones/Corbis

Nestled amid the latest glut of gimmicky lingo to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary — which, this year, includes sext, half-ass, and bridge-and-tunnel — is the term cisgender. Which seems a little surprising, when you consider that newfangled non-words like FOMO, srsly, and TL;DR made it into the OED before this useful adjective, which describes individuals whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.

The Oxford Dictionary (different from the OED) added the term cisgender in 2013, and in February 2014, Facebook included ten different cis- terms in its expanded gender-identity options. Yet people have been using cisgender for at least two decades. The Oxford Dictionary traces the evolution of the word to the ‘90s, and usage appears to go back to at least 1994, when a University of Minnesota biologist included the term in a post about a study on transphobia.

To be fair, the term was mostly confined to academic journals and online forums about gender issues until trans activist Julia Serano popularized it in her 2007 book, Whipping Girl. Serano says she started using the adjective after reading an essay by social-justice activist Emi Koyama, who wrote that terms like cisgender and cissexual are useful because “they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the ‘norm’ against which trans people are defined.”

To explain her use of the term, Serano uses the vocabulary around homo- and heterosexuality as an example: “Fifty years ago, homosexuality was almost universally seen as unnatural, immoral, illegitimate, etc.,” she writes. “Back then, people regularly talked about ‘homosexuals,’ but nobody ever talked about ‘heterosexuals.’ In a sense, there were no ‘heterosexuals’ — everyone who wasn’t engaged in same-sex behavior was simply considered ‘normal.’ Their sexualities were unmarked and taken for granted.”

Some linguists have questioned the staying power of the word cisgender, arguing that the most readily adapted words tend to be “unobtrusive” — whereas the meaning of cisgender (which stems from the Latin prefix cis, meaning on this side of — versus trans, which means on the other side of) isn’t intuitive to someone unfamiliar with the term. Yet, Serano argues that cis is an activist term, not an academic one, and that it only sounds like academic jargon because it remains unfamiliar to many. Though its conversational use dates back to the ‘60s, transgender wasn’t added to the dictionary until the ‘90s; transphobia wasn’t added until 2013. Cisgender seems similarly overdue.

Wait, Cisgender Wasn’t in the OED Already?