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ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Can you give me the history behind the words "gender" and "sex" and the use of these words?

Asked by ANef_is_Enuf (25187points) December 20th, 2011

When have they been used to mean the same thing?
What are the earliest definitions of each word?
When, if ever, was it distinguished that there is a difference in the definitions of each word?
Do different organizations or groups of people use different definitions for the these words?
Were they originally meant to have different definitions, then later used to encompass similar characteristics, or was it the other way around?

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8 Answers

DaphneT's avatar


late Middle English: from Old French gendre (modern genre), based on Latin genus ‘birth, family, nation’. The earliest meanings were ‘kind, sort, genus’ and ‘type or class of noun, etc.’ (which was also a sense of Latin genus)

The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense ‘the state of being male or female’ has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being male or female,’ they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender refers to cultural or social ones.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Also, is it accurate and/or acceptable to use “gender” when you are only referring to biological sex? If so, at what point did it become accurate?

Aethelflaed's avatar

Within queer, trans*, LGB, and (some) feminist circles, sex is the formation your genitals appear, usually male or female, but there’s a good amount of discussion on if there’s such a thing as “a sex” when given the option for intersexed people. Gender is more what’s in your head (hence the phrase “gender is between your ears, not your legs”), however, what exactly it is in your head is up for some debate. I think it’s Simone de Beauvoir who came up with the differentiation between sex and gender when she said “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (though, because de Beauvoir was French, the translation is not perfect, and the technical split is one of language), and then Judith Butler who gave the idea a renaissance, and it has since become largely accepted. So, transgender people are those who do not feel that their sexual identity (what’s between their ears) matches up with the genital formation they were born with, but who may or may not have made any physical changes to deal with this; transsexual people are only those who have changed their physical body in order to bring their sex and gender into more alignment. I personally just go with trans* most of the time.

I wouldn’t say it’s really accurate or acceptable to use gender when referring to biological sex, unless the purpose is to refute the validity of trans* and queer people and promote the idea that there cannot be a split between the sex you were assigned at birth and what gender you “really are”.

dabbler's avatar

Gender is what you’re born with, sex is what you do with it.
Bi-sexual doesn’t tell you anything about someone’s equipment, but it does tell you something about how they like to use it and what they’re attracted to.
Trans-gender tells you something very definite about someone’s equipment.

submariner's avatar

I’m pretty sure dabbler is dabbling here. As the terms are used by gender theorists, gender is nurture, sex is nature, as the one with the Saxon moniker said above. I expect Simone de Beauvoir (our jelly, not the French philosopher) will be able to shed some light on this question when she logs in.

Incidentally, gender as a grammatical distinction need not be based on masculine/feminine. The Ojibwe language has a gender system based on animate/inanimate (drums are regarded as animate).

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I am aware of how it is used in the LGBTQ community, I’m curious to know how it is used in other applications, as well.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I think it may be simpler if I just explain why I’m asking.

Someone called me an idiot because I didn’t think that it was really accurate to say that someone was announcing the gender of the baby they are expecting, and that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ have been used in place of one another in English until recently, and it really only changed because of the feminist movement.

So what I really want to know is how these words have been used historically, and how they are used in various applications. The medical community, the scientific community, language lovers, etc etc.

I have read lots of things, myself, since having this conversation… but I want to be absolutely certain that I understand.

submariner's avatar

Daphne’s OED excerpt is probably as authoritative a source as you’ll get. It says that the use of gender to refer to maleness/femaleness didn’t become common until the mid-20th c. Maybe 50s prudishness induced some people to use it as a euphemism for sex, and then feminists like Butler attached their meaning to it. I find it interesting that Victorians who felt compelled to talk about the limbs of a table rather than the legs had no problem with expressions like “the fair sex”.

My time in academe has colored my own use of these terms, but I have heard people use gender euphemistically, and have also heard or read language mavens disparage this usage for reasons not connected to feminism (i.e., that it is a technical term from grammar that properly applies to words, and people should just get over their squeamishness about the word sex.)

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