Transmissions: Linguistic history

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday January 24, 2024
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

I was recently made aware of a fascinating bit of linguistic history, courtesy of the 1661 edition of Thomas Blount's "Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting all such hard words of whatsoever language now used in our refined English tongue." Books seemed to have much grander titles then.

"Glossographia," which is readable online, covers a wide variety of early words, including language from law, mathematics, the sciences, and religion. The second edition advertises over 500 new words recently added, as well. Such was the nature of language in the English Renaissance, I suppose.

I'm really only concerned about two words in this tome, however.

Transexion (from trans and sexus), a turning or passing from one sex to another.

Transfeminate (from trans and fæmina), to turn from woman to man, or from one sex to another. Dr. Br.

You might be wondering about the "Dr. Br." in there. This is for the person who created these words: Dr. Thomas Browne. He used them in his 1646 book, "Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths."

I should also note that Browne was no stranger to creating words. You can thank him for "approximate," "hallucination," "medical," "prostate," and even "ultimate," among a great number of other common English words.

Still, I want to go back to the two more unusual words above.

In "Pseudodoxia Epidemica," Browne speaks about the common belief of the era that hares were "both male and female," but goes much further than the common rabbit.

"For hereof beside Empedocles or Tiresias there are not a few examples: and though very few, or rather none which have emasculated or turned women, yet very many who from an esteem or reality of being Women have infallibly proved Men," wrote Browne. "Some at the first point of their menstruous eruptions, some in the day of their marriage, others many years after: which occasioned disputes at Law, and contestations concerning a restore of the dowry. And that not only mankind, but many other Animals may suffer this transexion, we will not deny, or hold it at all impossible."

Browne continues, a bit later, writing, "Transmutation of sex is only so in opinion; and that these transfeminated persons were really men at first; although succeeding years produced the manifesto or evidence of their virilities."

The language is antiquated at best, but seems to be largely describing intersex people, rather than those we may call trans today. Throughout the section, however, he makes it clear that humans — and hares — contain both the masculine and the feminine in their being.

While transexion and transfeminate have long been forgotten, it nevertheless fascinates me that such language existed more than 350 years ago. Just a couple short decades after the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and a full century before the American Revolution, the notion of human gender not being solidly fixed into two rigid categories was already understood.

Of course, the language around trans and related identities has been in flux for at least the last century, and continues to be refined to this day.

A hundred years ago, Jennie June, aka Earl Lind, wrote about being an androgyne and a female impersonator, describing their own recognition in ways that often conflate gay, trans, and intersex identities.

In the same era, the word "transvestite" was coined by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. It, too, was used broadly, not just covering those who cross dress, but also those we'd call transgender or transsexual today.

Transsexual, of course, gained prominence as a term in the post-war era, as did transvestite to simply refer to cross-dressing. Femmophile, devised by Virginia Prince, would also describe the latter, though the term never seemed to catch on past the mid-20th century era.

In the late 1960s, we saw drag applied as an umbrella term covering a lot of trans identities, before it settled into its more modern usage. Transvestite also was used broadly, as was transsexual, before both would largely fizzle out by the 1990s in favor of transgender. Then trans*, later trans — sans asterisk — would take its place.

Today, gender fluid, nonbinary, and a host of other terms have hit common usage, enhancing our understanding of ourselves, even while terms like transsexual began to come back from the past.

Our identities and expressions are writ large, and contain multiples. We may yet find other terms to describe ourselves down the line, relegating today's terminology to the dustbin of history.

Or, we may lose our language altogether.

Thanks to Florida's book bans, particularly 2023's House Bill 1069 that requires schools to teach that "reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable," the Escambia County School District has a list of more than 1,600 books on the chopping block. This includes many trans-themed books such as "When Aidan Became a Brother" (2019) by Kyle Lukoff and Kaylani Juanita and Jazz Jennings' "Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen" (2016).

Yet, the list also includes five dictionaries and eight encyclopedias in its ranks, presumably because they don't toe the line. None of the dictionaries, I note, are Blount's "Glossographia."

I find myself wondering, however: if these notions about gender identity can be found in print in the 1600s, then what is it that Florida fears in 2024?

It would seem that language and, indeed, the evolving nature of trans expression and identity through our use of language, causes so much fear that, for some, we cannot even be defined in print.

That is a loss for everyone, no matter how you define them.

Gwen Smith is positively transfixed. You'll find her at www.gwensmith.com

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