June 12, 1998
These days, the word "gender" seems preferred over the word "sex" when referring to whether someone is male or female, almost as if the word "sex" besmirches the attributes of the person described. But somewhere, I read that "gender" should only be used in reference to grammar, and that "sex" is correct when applied to people. What do you say?
I say that what you read is a traditional statement of this issue, but that in current usage, your observation--that gender meaning 'sex' is very common--is accurate.
The original meaning of the word gender, to use the definition in the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, is:
a set of grammatical categories applied to nouns, shown by the form of the noun itself or the choice of words that modify, replace, or refer to it, often correlated in part with sex or animateness, as in the choice of he to replace "the man," she to replace "the woman," or it to replace "the table," but sometimes based on arbitrary assignment without regard to the referent of the noun, as in French le livre (masculine) "the book" or German das Mädchen (neuter) "the girl."There are also the related senses 'one of the categories in such a set, as masculine, feminine, neuter, or common', and 'membership of a word or grammatical form in such a category'.
Gender has been used in this sense since the fourteenth century. It has also been used since the fourteenth century in the sense 'sex', that is, 'either the female or male division of a species'. Older examples: "The Psyche, or soul, of Tiresias is of the masculine gender" (Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia); "I may add the gender too of the person I am to govern" (Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey); "Black divinities of the feminine gender" (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities); "Our most lively impression is that the sun is there assumed to be of the feminine gender" (Henry James, Essays on Literature).
Though such examples can be found throughout the word's history, by around 1900 this sense was felt to be "jocular" or "colloquial" by lexicographers who were then dealing with it. Our old friend H.W. Fowler wrote in 1926 that "gender...is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons...of the masculine or feminine g[ender], meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder."
Despite such pronouncements, which may be found in similar forms in many usage books, the use of gender to refer to sex has been increasingly common in the last several decades. This use of gender is comparably common, if not more common, than the equivalent use of sex. A few examples from this year: "The state has to justify any discrimination based on race, gender, national origin [etc.]" (New Republic); "No residential college at Yale prohibits visits by either gender" (New York Times Magazine); "Can clever readers really tell a writer's gender from his or her prose?" (Harper's). The growth of this usage, sometimes blamed on "feminists," is probably a result of the increased frequency of the word sex in the sense of sexual intercourse; gender is employed to avoid the potential physical connotations of sex.
Gender has also developed the nuance of 'the cultural or behavioral roles and attitudes traditionally associated with one sex'. Example: "Today a return to separate single-sex schools may hasten the revival of separate gender roles" (Wendy Kaminer, in The Atlantic Monthly (1998)). This sense is sometimes approved of even by those who dislike the main gender 'sex' sense: "The word 'gender' has acquired the new and useful connotation of cultural or attitudinal characteristics (as opposed to physical characteristics) distinctive to the sexes....[This case involved] sex discrimination plain and simple" (Justice Antonin Scalia, in a 1994 Supreme Court case).
In sum, we can say that sex is unquestionably correct when applied to people, and gender is unquestionably correct when applied to grammar categories. Gender has been in constant use for many centuries in reference to whether creatures are male or female; this use is very common today, and it cannot be considered incorrect, though some people do object to it.
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