Most people find that they fit readily into one of the common titles Mr, Ms, Mrs or Miss, even if they consider them unnecessary. Ms as a female equivalent of Mr – a title that does not mark marital status – is little more than a century old but is now thoroughly established in standard usage. Of course, it should be used right, not simply in opposition to Mrs.
But this array of options is still inadequate, because not everyone falls neatly into the binary model of gender. In official contexts we tend to categorise people as male/female, married/unmarried, ignoring the often more complex realities of identity. And just as Ms enables women not to indicate their marital status, an emerging title allows people not to indicate their gender: Mx.
Mx has been around since 1977 at least, and its increasing use – including in official contexts – means it is now a candidate for inclusion in dictionaries. An editor at the OED recently said they may add it soon. Macmillan Dictionary has already done so, following a submission to its crowd-sourced Open Dictionary. To date, Mx has been accepted by various local councils, universities, banks, law societies, the Royal Mail, and government services such as the NHS and HM Revenue and Customs. Clearly it is gaining momentum.
Mx has been adopted by many people who don’t identify as female or male. (Non-binary people can complete a survey on the topic here.) Such preferences should never be assumed – for example, it’s not obligatory for transgender people, but rather an option they may or may not find suitable. Speaking of preferences, Mx is usually pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’, the latter reflecting a sort of stressed schwa, like the options for Ms. When I asked about it on Twitter, Mx-users confirmed both pronunciations. I’m grateful to everyone who joined in that discussion.
During Macmillan Dictionary’s focus on gender in English in 2011 I noted that deliberate attempts to engineer the language are rarely successful, since the number of people using it is vast, and everyone makes their own decision. (Yes, their.) But with enough support and awareness, conscious linguistic changes can and do happen en masse. The slow but inexorable shift away from sexist language shows it to be possible – and sometimes necessary.
In 1973 Susan Sontag described language as ‘the most intense and stubborn fortress of sexist assumptions’. Things have improved since then thanks to the efforts and arguments of feminist researchers who highlighted the prejudice inherent in usages like generic he and man. But discriminatory and exclusionary gender-based language remains prevalent, and should be challenged.
Mx has several other meanings, as Nancy Friedman notes, but the letters’ new use strikes me as very apt. The x can work as a kind of wild card, as it does in many other contexts, and Mx itself feels both modern and timeless. If it seems strange at first, it shouldn’t take long to get used to. Like Ms before it, Mx may well become an everyday part of English and a significant player in collective efforts to reduce the normative bias implicit in language.Email this Post