Mind your language

How we ended up ‘cisgender’

The history of a tendentious word

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

‘That’s not how you spell “system”,’ said my husband triumphantly, pointing with his whisky glass at a placard inveighing against the ‘Cistem’, held up by a transgender protester on television. ‘No, darling,’ I said, not even assuming a patient tone. ‘It’s a play on words.’

Among people who like using the word gender outside its grammatical homeland, cis- as a prefix is tacked on, to make cisgender: ‘someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth’, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it carefully. Note that it is not held to be a question of being the same sex as you were born, but the sex and gender assigned to you.


I confess to having fallen in with my late parents’ blinkered decision to assign the female gender to me, a decision perhaps reinforced by my daughter Veronica’s habit of calling me Mummy. That make me cisgender, or cisgendered as some express it.

In any case, we dull cisgender types have only had this label since 1999. Transgender people have enjoyed theirs since 1974. Transsexual, or transexual, came into use about 1957, but with at least four meanings: ‘having physical sexual characteristics different from psychological ones’; ‘being intersexual, neither male nor female’; ‘being both heterosexual and homosexual’; ‘having had surgery in pursuit of a sexual identity’.

So cisgender was coined in distinction from transgender as cisalpine was differentiated from transalpine. It depends on viewpoint. Just as ultramontane originally meant ‘on the far side of the Alps from Rome’, and later the opposite, so did ‘transalpine’, as first viewed from Rome and later from England. Thus transpontine means (in London) the parts south of the river (as though everyone’s viewpoint is from north of the river). In 1662, dear old Thomas Fuller wrote of Henry Stafford, something of a turncoat under Henry VIII and Queen Mary: ‘I place him confidently not a trans-, but Cis-reformation-man.’

I feel that transgender campaigners have become silly, violent and intolerant. They will say that as a cis I have no right to speak on the matter.

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Show comments
  • Des Demona

    I’m not sure anyone outside the cesspit of gender politics is going to take the word on board for general use any time soon. So….. the vast majority of us. If anyone does use that expression at me I will simply smile and walk away.

    • Landphil

      I think you mean cispit

      • Des Demona

        Now that might catch on!

        • Landphil

          Mind where you step.

  • Suriani

    the concept of ‘gender’ should never have quit linguistics; its usage has been promiscuous ever since.

  • Richard Eldritch

    I’ve vowed to punch in the face the first person to call me Cisgendered.

  • evad666

    Does CISgender mean the person in question is from the old CIS?

  • I still don’t know what it means.

    • Hamburger

      Nor I.

  • MikePage

    It is a clear abuse of language when the majority are defined in terms of the minority.

    What the article doesn’t reveal is the etymology of the cis prefix. I googled it. You might too.

    • Doctor Crackles

      I particularly hate straight and heterosexual. The majority needs no special definition as it just is. The majority’s actions can be considered normal in that they are consistent with nature and tradition. Only deviants seek special terminology to replace ‘abnormal’.

  • Chingford Man

    Not having previously heard of this word, I thought it had something to do with a cistern.

  • FriendlyFire

    Trans- and Cis- are also used in chemistry to denote left- and right-handed versions of a complex molecule. This also ensures one version of the molecule is not offended by the other one being referred to as “normal”, even if 99.97% of the molecules are of that form.

    • EasyStreet

      You’ve got that muddled up with R- and S-, which are the ‘handedness’ designators for chiral molecules. Cis- and trans- refer to the arrangement of groups either side of a non-rotational bond (often a C=C double), “trans fats” being an example where the term is already in the public discourse. We are often told that trans fats are bad, but I can’t recall ever being encouraged to eat cis fats instead!

      • David

        So for the humble physicists among us… are there ‘cis-fats’ out there? in so far as non-trans-fats are cis-fats? Or is it not quite that simple?

        • EasyStreet

          It is that simple, but the phrase “cis fats” has not entered public discourse because we are merely encouraged to avoid “trans fats”, not to replace them with a healthier alternative, so the name of the alternative remains obscure.

      • FriendlyFire

        Thanks for the correction. Yes I had an idea at the back of my mind something about L- and D-glucose, but obviously didn’t research the point. Or is that something else entirely?

  • rick hamilton

    My online search came up with the Cattle Information Service. I am still no wiser.

    In the gender sense, ‘Cis-‘ appears to mean ‘normal’ but the spirit of the age is to try to make us celebrate everything under the sun that was once considered weird, perverse or gruesome.

  • JustSomeChap

    The term ‘cis’ was pretty much invented to make non-LGBT people (ie the overwhelming majority of humanity) feel offended and give people who want to bash normal societal structures a word with which to abuse people who don’t immediately fawn over them, especially when said-people refuse to acknowledge their Marxist based theories on how society operates: we are apparently so brainwashed by accepting our gender roles that we are too stupid to be regarded seriously. It’s psuedo-intellectualism and politically-correct offensiveness wrapped up into one pathetic package and it fails because it’s a bad insult and as this article and the comment shows, no one knows what it means and when told what it means just shrug their shoulders because they’re rational adults who don’t care if people call them normal bad words, let alone made up ones.

  • rbw152

    I like G and T myself.

  • JSC

    One day these crotch-gazing dullards will raise their heads long enough to realise that far from studying some profound, hitherto unexplored facet of human sexuality and philosophy of mind they’re actually studying transient clothing fashions which they’ve mistakenly taken as both eternal, global and significant. The entire field of cloth-based gender analysis could easily be moved to the textiles and fashion department of the university if it were not for gender-evangelists attempting to foist this misunderstanding on anyone patient enough to put up with them.

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