I first posted this on May 6, 2006, and I’m surprised I haven’t reposted it here. Thanks to various people from the My Husband Betty Message Boards for helpful feedback.
In linguistics, there are many who frown on the idea of conscious control of language use, individual or collective, such as in the book published in 1950 called Leave Your Language Alone. People who try to control language are sometimes called prescriptivists, a term that conjures up images of stuffy grammarians writing pedantic articles about punctuation. However, in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene, Deborah Cameron argued that there are all kinds of reasons to advocate or attempt language change, and some are good (eliminating sexist generic statements like “A good doctor talks to his patients”) and some are bad (using natural variations as shibboleths to discriminate against people from stigmatized ethnic groups). Cameron’s point is that the important thing is to be aware of the reasons and to subject them to an open decision-making process.
With that in mind, I have some things to say about the use of the word transgender. I am not doing this to discriminate or belittle people, or out of blind deference to tradition. I’m also not out to demonize anyone or blame anyone else for these problems. I have specific reasons for arguing against a current change in usage, and for a specific way of thinking about the term. I also want people to be aware of the effects of the language that they use, and the consequences of their choices. I’m going to be drawing on the field of lexical semantics, which itself draws on psychology, artificial intelligence, computer science and philosophy. Continue reading “Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?”