“Cisgender”

Hello. I’m Lena, I identify as female, and I prefer the pronouns “she” and “her.” I’m a cisgender woman. This means that I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth.

The majority of people you meet are cisgender, though many of them don’t know the word. Though we’re not exactly sure who first used the term, it’s been around since the mid 1990s. (That’s around twenty years, for those of you who keep thinking of the 90s as a couple years ago.) The word comes from the prefix “cis” which is Latin for “on this side of,” and is often contrasted with the prefix “trans” meaning “on the other side of.”

In this case, “on this side of” means that my gender is aligned with the gender I have been raised with and am recognized as. Everyone has treated me as a girl throughout my whole life, and I feel so comfortable with it, I barely need to think about it most days. When someone’s gender is not the gender they were raised with, they are transgender. These can also be said as just “cis” and “trans.” (Some people under the trans umbrella also identify as genderqueer, bigender, pangender, agender, genderfluid, or other terms which best reflect their identity relating to non-binary gender.)

Sometimes “cisgender” is referred to as “when sex and gender match.” Culturally we think of sex in very basic terms, (man versus woman) but it’s actually a combination of various traits that often group together, but don’t always. Sex is the biological stuff— the chromosomes, the anatomy, and the hormones. However, sometimes people have XY chromosomes and female anatomy and hormones. Or sometimes people have chromosomes that are neither XX or XY or bodies that are declared intersex or have ambiguous anatomy. Gender, too, is difficult to pin down at times. Sometimes a person’s gender identity (man, masculine) doesn’t match their gender role (stay at home parent, feminine) or gender expression (androgynous). So, when we say that “cisgender” means sex and gender match, what we mean is that the cisgender person has chromosomes, hormones, and body parts that are most often grouped together and matched with that gender identity.

When we say that “trans” means “sex and gender don’t match,” this usually refers to a situation where who they are doesn’t match the body, hormones, and chromosomes that are most often matched with that identity. This causes dysphoria because their body doesn’t feel right to them.

But this being the only understanding and definition of the word “trans” is sometimes problematic because puts pressure on trans identified people to feel they should hate their bodies in order to have people take their identity seriously, or puts pressure on them to make their sex and gender match in the form of hormone therapy or surgery, even though some of them don’t want to pursue those options, and some of them don’t want to “pass” as cisgender.

  • (I want to note here that it’s rude to refer to someone as anything other than their identity if you’re aware of that identity. This applies in all sorts of situations, really. If someone tells you about themselves, it’s generally unkind to counter with “no you’re not, you’re this.” In line with that, telling a trans woman that she’s a man because of her biological sex is not only rude, but incorrect. It’s like people excluding various body types by saying “real women have ___.” Obviously real women have all sorts of qualities, because there is near infinite diversity in the shapes, colors, and sizes of bodies, and what makes a woman is in the brain. A woman’s body is a body belonging to a woman. A woman with a beard, a woman with her breasts removed, or a woman without curves are all real women. If that body belongs to a trans lady, no matter the appearance, that is a lady’s body, not a lady in a man’s body.)

An important aspect of the trans identity is that their assigned/recognized gender and actual gender identity don’t match, which causes a lot of distress. What this means is that, for example, a trans boy not only had typical female sex, but was also raised and recognized as a girl, and was misgendered through his whole childhood. Even if he decides not to go through a million medical hoops in adulthood, he may still be uncomfortable being misgendered and treated like a woman.

To give a particularly rare example, David Reimer was born biologically male with all the traits we associate with being of male sex. He then was then sexually reassigned after a botched circumcision and assigned female gender. Reimer did not feel his gender identity matched that assigned to him at birth and transitioned to male at age fifteen. He later committed suicide, which is unfortunately common among transgender people. In this case, at birth his sex and gender matched but he still experienced much of the struggle of being transgender because he was assigned/raised/recognized as a different gender than that with which he identified.

Why am I explaining what “transgender” means in a post about the word “cisgender”? Well this often happens because trans people are a minority group and cis people are a privileged group, so when we talk about the differences of our experiences at all, most of us only talk about and examine the minority group. It’s assumed that because cisgender people are the majority, we don’t need to think about what being cisgender means, or ask all sorts of personal questions about how they feel about their hormone balance, underwear, and genitalia.

Some cisgender people even get upset that the word “cisgender” exists at all. I’ve heard things like: 

“I don’t see why we need that word. I’m the way I’m SUPPOSED to be. I’m normal.” 

“Do we really need to know words like this? I’m not going to introduce myself as cisgender all the time. That’s pointless” 

“This is ridiculous.” 

The saying goes “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” It seems for many people, this word gets caught on the first two steps. People try to say it’s pointless as a word, or to laugh at it. Or they get angry that it exists.

I find this interesting, because the word only exists because there is a need for it. Regardless of how uncommon something is, we don’t pair it with “normal” when we’re trying to be respectful, because the binary implies the opposite is abnormal, and abnormal has a terribly stinging connotation in our culture. We don’t say “Left handed people and normal people” or “gay people and normal people,” we say “left-handed and right handed” and “gay and straight.”

“Cisgender” has been around for two decades, and the reason why is obvious for anyone who researches, discusses, or thinks about gender identity. Maybe the first time we talk about our assigned gender and gender identity matching, we go through a whole blog-post length discussion, but the following fifty times, it’s great to just use a three-syllable word. Cisgender sounds nice on the tongue, and its connotation is neither negative nor positive. It’s nicely neutral.

I also find it interesting that this reaction of mockery or outrage is much more rare with the word “transgender.” There are fewer people asking why that word needs to exist or declaring it pointless and ridiculous.  

One of the reasons why, I think, comes from the fact that the majority of the time those in a position of greater privilege have the power to assign labels to those in positions of lesser privilege. It’s easier to know which place you’re in when you’re the one without power, because all the questions and studying and labeling is placed on you. There’s the rest of history, then there’s your history. There’s the dominant culture (often invisible and not even thought of as a culture) and then there’s your subculture. The majority speculates and writes books about what it’s like to be in the minority so the majority can think about it if they choose to. But the minority must always simultaneously balance both worlds, knowing what it is to be in each group by virtue of being the “other.” Those in a position of lesser privilege are often defined by what separates them from the majority.

It’s no shock that when the minority labels the majority and defines them by what separates the majority group from themselves, the majority group is unsettled. “How dare they label me? That’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t need to think about this aspect of myself, or God forbid have it questioned and studied! I’m the dominant group! I’m normal!” The world is turned upside-down in a small way.

In a sense, the word “cisgender” is a way for transgender people to take a small amount of power back in our society. It allows for them to discuss what gender identity means without needing to look at it through the lens of a culture that views their experience and life as abnormal at best and wrong at worst (with all the negative connotations of those words soaked in). It gives them the power to express differences in gender and sex from a place where there is no ‘standard’ starting point, but only a wide expanse in three dimensions to explore. It’s both freeing and empowering.

For me personally, I only truly understood how strongly I felt my own gender identity when trying to present as a man for a single day. I dressed myself in masculine clothes and mimicked the way many men move their bodies, position themselves in a room, take up space, and look at other people. I felt very uncomfortable after only a couple hours. People looked at me less, women gave me too much space and glanced sideways at me in the restroom, and absolutely no one complimented me or said something nice in passing until I switched back to presenting female.  I missed the weight of my rings and I had the urge to cross my legs all day.

I do have a couple traits that some people might view as stereotypically masculine, in both my behavior and appearance, but I realized just how strongly I identify as a woman. It is so comfortable for me to present as female and so uncomfortable to present as male, and I only caught a tiny glimpse of those feelings (I’m certain I didn’t fully pass as male) for a single day. My gender is important to me, and that is as a cisgender woman.

I appreciate the word “cisgender” for giving me a way to approach discussing this sense of identity. It allows me to appreciate the privileges I have in being comfortable with the gender with which everyone assumes I identify. 

 

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What’s the word? I know this… It’s on the tip of my tongue…

I’m a terribly forgetful person. I’m prone to losing things I was just holding a moment ago or forgetting details of a conversation I just took part in. I’m bad with names, faces, places, directions, and dates. And perhaps worst of all, I’m prone to forgetting the word I was just about to use.

Most people experience this occasionally, even those with a brilliant memory. There is this moment where you feel the apparition of the word creep backwards along the edges of your brain before slipping inside a fold of dark tissue and dispersing completely. In that moment, there is a physical need to reach out and pull it forward, as if you could materialize and give voice to that word if only it was a little closer. It is the same feeling as trying to recall a dream or a distant memory from childhood that seems so vivid and urgent— right until the moment you’re beginning to describe it. 

This is often referred to as “TOT” as in “Tip of my Tongue” because so often the feeling is described as “Oh, the word is right there on the tip of my tongue.” I love this description, because I like picturing a little ghost word balancing on someone’s tongue, either to be flicked out into the world as a vocalization or to accidentally be swallowed whole. 

This is particularly frustrating when the message you’re attempting to convey is urgent, or when you’re writing and know that only one particular word contains the perfect music, connotation, and meaning for this particular line of poetry and you just can’t think of the darn thing. 

It also happens on a larger scale for writers all the time. Occasionally a perfect line of dialogue or stanza will bubble up while I’m out in public or just about to fall asleep. Other times it’s even more important— a realization about which main character should die and how, or how the climax of a trilogy should unfold. 

When these thoughts start to slip away, it’s frightening. A single word you might retrieve, but this is bigger, more complex, and far from common knowledge. It is unique to your brain, and if it’s no where to be found there, it’s no where at all. 

If you find this happening to you as much as I do, here are some suggestions for how to approach the situation. 

 

  1. Notecards

    Before you lose the idea or the word, write it down. This only works if you’re aware that the thought is important while you’re first having it, and it requires fast action. Still, I find this method useful for myself and have adapted to it pretty well over the years. 

    You’ll need a small notepad, flashcards, or even a folded up sheet of paper that you can keep somewhere on your person wherever you go. Personally, I keep one notepad next to my bed, another on my desk, and a bunch of notecards in my purse. Once, one of my friends asked, “I never understand what women fill their purses with” and gestured towards mine. I opened it to reveal a wallet, notecards, and a collection of pencils and pens in various colors. If you’re not a purse holding sort of person, I recommend decently sized pockets. 

    I love that Anne Lamott discussed this same practice in Bird by Bird, because it convinces me that this is a perfectly normal thing for writers: 
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    “I used to think that if something was important enough, I’d remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society. But then I wouldn’t.

    …That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it. So now I use index cards.

    … I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you.”  

    -Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (pg 135-137).

    The hardest part isn’t actually remembering to write these things down. You quickly get used to that, and it honestly trains you to recognize important ideas, words, and lines more easily. The difficult part is keeping track of these notecards and remembering to use them the next time you can’t remember what your idea was. It’s all well and good if you remember that you’ve forgotten the essential adjective in that insulting line of dialogue for your villain, because now you can simply take out your flashcard, but it doesn’t help you at all if you can’t even remember that you had a line of dialogue written in the first place.

  2. Asking questions and exploring thought patterns. 
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     “The notecard idea is great for people who remember to plan ahead, but what about those of us who forget the notecards themselves?” 
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    One thing that helps me is to directly address the TOT feeling as it’s happening. (This strategy works best if you’re in a comfortable place of communication such as talking with a friend or writing alone at a desk. It’s not recommended during public speaking.)

    Most of the time, your first instinct will be to ask someone else. If you’re in a large group, and you’re trying to remember a word, feel free. Or, if you’re on your own, try googling the idea and looking for definitions. There are even forums of people dedicated to helping you remember what that word was.

    However, I don’t recommend this in some situations. First, if you’re only speaking with one other person, the tip-of-your-tongue phenomenon is often contagious and soon your conversational partner won’t remember the word either. Now, not only have you forgotten what word you were about to say, but the entire conversation is derailed and is now more about the missing word than the idea you needed the word to express. The whole idea slips away.

    Second, if what you’re forgetting is an idea about a character or plot point or anything relating to your personal writing, you can’t expect anyone else to remember this better than you. Even if you find yourself giving in to the thoughts of “but I told them all about this idea a week ago and they really liked it so they must know!” you need to take a breath and remember that there is a very real possibility that their life is more urgent and worth their memory than your fiction (or nonfiction, or poetry) and no matter how much they loved everything you said, they won’t be able to recite to you what that idea was. There are, of course, exceptions, but I believe there are better ways than directly asking, “What did I say I was going to have that character do?”

    So now what? That plot point is slipping and if you chase it backwards, it will disappear into the void and you’ll never get it back. Don’t chase it backwards. Try coming up from behind it and chasing it forwards. 

    “What are you talking about?”

    I’m talking about a change of approach. Instead of focusing on trying to remember that exact idea, take a breath and start from the beginning of your thoughts again. Go all the way back to the beginning of your conversation or your page or your outline (or at least reasonably far back) and slowly follow your train of thought from there. Often you will take the same turns in logic, make the same associations, and end up with the same idea you had before. You’re not remembering it, exactly, but you are figuring it out again, which serves the same purpose. Sometimes it’s easier to think forward than backward. 


  3. Using other words.
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    If you’re in the moment and need to communicate something urgently, but can’t get the word to come out, try using any other words you can to express that idea.

    Your substituted words might not communicate it perfectly, and will probably end up leaving you using much simpler words, but you can continue on with your main thought. Dwelling on a single word might lead you to lose the entire idea. If you try this, you may face a little teasing from your conversational partner (especially if that person is a close friend or sibling) but they’ll probably remind you of the right word anyway. “Did you mean ____?” “..Yes that.”

    If it saves your ego any, you can tell someone that you knew a better word and simply misplaced it: “I’m forgetting the word, but…”

    “But what if that didn’t work or it’s more important and complex than a simple word? What if you forgot the notecards and retracing your thought patterns didn’t work? You asked people around you and searched online all to no avail. The word or idea is gone forever! Now what?” 

    Try writing it out using other words anyway. I know they aren’t the right ones, but it’s better than losing the whole thought. If it’s a whole climax you forgot, try creating a new climax and writing this one out. It won’t be the old one, sure, but this is a last resort and it’s better than having no climax at all.

    Sometimes the act of creating a new bit of phrasing, line of poetry, character arc, piece of dialogue, or ending to a book can actually help your writing. While often your first idea was plenty good, sometimes the new one is fresher and escapes a few cliches or overused tropes. Or maybe your first one was as brilliant as you remember, but that only means you are capable of brilliance on your first try. Be confident. You’re a creative person and can come up with more than one good idea. And if your new idea is terrible, or you somehow remember the old one and still like it better in a few months, you can always come back and revise.

    (*I actually advise this method as a revision technique for when you’re truly stuck on a piece of writing, even if you haven’t forgotten your original idea. Set aside whatever you’re working on, whether poem, essay, chapter, or outline and don’t look at it. Now start over and write the whole thing again.  

    “But isn’t this a waste of time and creative energy?” you might be asking. “I already wrote it once and I’m having trouble with moving forward, not with what I’ve already written. I don’t want to do that all over. The other one was better.”  

    Fair points, I feel the same way every time I do it. Get all that out of your system. Now read over both versions and realize you’ve just opened up entirely new paths to take. If you felt completely stuck on your original piece, you now have options to choose from. You can identify which aspects of which version are best and take those, and it might lead you to a place of new creativity.)

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So start carrying some paper and jotting down ideas or trying to retrace the steps of your own thinking. It will help sometimes.

But even when you accidentally swallow your words or very important ideas, don’t panic. Your new phrasing may be better than the old. Being forced to explain your ideas without falling back on the simplest or most appropriate word to describe it may help you explore the idea more fully. Making peace with swallowed and lost words or ideas can lead to greater creative richness. 

Trust yourself to think of new ideas that will be just as grand. 

“Ya’aburnee, Elflock, and Sonder” – Why We Love Sharing Words We Never Use

You all know by now that I love words. If you’ve read my ‘About’ page, you know that many of my friends do as well, so it should come as no surprise when I say that several of them routinely share words with me over social media. Some of these come in the form of words from other languages, others are English words I might not already know due to age or obscurity, and others are made up. One thing they all have in common are interesting definitions.

My friends are hardly the only ones who share this pastime. Usually the unusual or unknown words are shared from websites, blog posts, articles, and tumblr accounts where other people are collecting and sharing them among wide audiences. There are even subreddits ( custom-made subforums on reddit.com) dedicated to “interesting and novel words” and creating new words.

I’ve found words like these from pages of untranslatable words from other languages

Litost – a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Mamihlapinatapei – The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

Ya’aburnee – Literally: “You bury me.” A declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person because it would be so difficult to live without them. 

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And I’ve found other words in lists like these from pages showing “obsolete words” we should use again:

Apricity – The sun’s warmth on a cold winter’s day.

Curglaff – The shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water

Elflock – Tangled hair, as if matted by elves.

 

The idea behind both of these is more than the literal grouping. These aren’t just lists of words from other languages or words that aren’t spoken anymore. Very few of us are truly interested in those things beyond admiring the romantic idea of them, or we would simply pick up foreign dictionaries and translation guides and start reading very old literary texts. If you asked most of the people who share these links over social media to start these— that this thick book full of complicated, obscure words is just the thing for them, or that that they would really love to read this English to Tshiluba dictionary from cover to cover— they might look at you oddly, give you a short thanks, and set the books on their shelf, never to be read.

Instead, these lists and websites are a persuasive argument: You should start using these words. You should know them. They should become a part of your life and how you process the world around you. 

And many of us are persuaded. However, we do not use them in conversation as just the words themselves, because that was never the intention of those who brought the words to us. The intention is not really sharing the words at all, but sharing the definitions. When we send them to our friends or post about them online, the definitions are always included, and it is a discussion of the concepts, emotions, and images presented in them that brings us pleasure. 

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http://www.other-wordly.tumblr.com )

These images are from the tumblr account Other Wordly which prides itself on the fact that these words are real

“Some of them are coined words, meaning words that were made up by someone, but that later entered into common usage. Some are bastardizations or combinations of other words, and others are from a language other than English” 

Her definition of ‘real’ words is agreeable, but doesn’t seem exactly limited to official standard English either, particularly with the part about “bastardizations” and “combinations of other words.” What’s interesting is that people are concerned enough to ask if these words are real (maybe after not finding them in their dictionaries) and she soothes the worry in this way. There is a need for validity here that reminds me of the way we are so hurt when we read a story we believe is true, only to learn large parts were fictionalized. It reminds me of the emotional reaction of people discovering an anonymous post on the internet could simply be telling a made-up story. “What do you mean ‘people on the internet lie?’”

I don’t mean to suggest these words are lies, though, or that they are in any way barred from our language. As I’ve said before, language is a living thing. Even the words which are from other languages or are created for the purpose of sharing them online could be introduced and integrated to our language through simple use among enough people for enough time.

With that said, I believe that along with sharing these words comes an inherent resistance to actually integrating them into our daily language. These words begin to lack the emotion we first felt when reading them as soon as they’re separated from their definitions. The words don’t really capture these ideas— the definitions do. We feel an attachment to the written meaning that we can’t part with long enough to just use the word.

One of the best examples of this is the word “Sonder.” In every discussion of obscure and little-known words, this one comes up in conversation no matter where I seem to be. But every time, anyone who uses it is counting on someone asking them what it means so they can pull up the exact wording of the definition. 

 

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It’s easy to see why this would be shared: it’s a thought-provoking, sad, and beautiful idea that many of us experience. The concept this word represents is a sentimental and romantic one, without being overly cliched. It still gets to us.

However, in the strictest sense the word isn’t ‘real’ at all. It’s not obscure so much as it is new, because it was invented about a year ago on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and has since been passed around the internet.

On some level it doesn’t matter if any of these words are real or not. While some genres (like creative nonfiction or reliable dictionaries) rely on the relative accuracy and factuality of their contents, there are other genres (like poetry) which freely move between reality and imagination, resting at some place of truth.

These definitions describe ideas, realizations, feelings, and images that are otherwise difficult to convey and share with other people. When we find a word that drives us to share it with our friends, it is because it has woken something in us in the midst of our daily routines. It doesn’t matter whether they are real or not real so long as they’re true. The point isn’t whether you can find the words in the dictionary— the point is whether you can share a feeling with someone. These obscure words are titles, and their definitions are like short prose poems. 

On May 14, Amy Tan wrote on her Facebook page: 

“But from an early age, I was a writer because I had a feeling about words — that no one word was sufficient to describe what I really felt or saw or had experienced. I tried to find variations in a thesaurus. The nuances excited me, but the answers were not there. The word “love” was not enough to express what love was, nor was the word “unfair” able to capture why I felt I had been punished for what I did not do. The word “alone” did not capture what had happened last week or what might happen in the future.  A single word was like a left shoe that belonged to someone else and was too small, yet had to be worn because there was nothing else.” 

It’s one of the best descriptions of why we write that I’ve ever read. As much as I love words, what I love more is their combinations and the act of stringing them together to explain all of what could be held by each one. That is why I write this blog, trying week after week to explain all the weight on these words. 

But, words themselves are small, simple things when compared to the intricacies of fantasy and reality. We can never really expect words to hold all the weight of infinite, internal worlds, the weight of every story and all significance they might represent. They need other words to help them carry it. Single words can never express what we truly mean.

These ‘obscure’ words soothe the part of us that has a need to be expressed through language. They show us words untranslatable from other languages, words that have gone out of use even though their meanings are still relevant, or they show us new words for ideas that don’t yet have a resting place in the pages of our dictionaries. These words appeal to us because they imply and promise “all the other words you’ve heard couldn’t say this, but this word can.”

But of course, it is a false promise, a white lie. The words themselves are just as powerless alone as any word, and maybe more so because of the fact that they are old, uncommon, invented, or not in our language at all. The white lie is hopeful, though. The definitions attached give us the feelings that we don’t have words for, and isn’t that what all writing aims to do?

It is an interesting phenomenon to me, as a poet, that in a culture where the average reader has not read a poem since their last English class, these definitions are so appealing. I think that whether or not we have found the first poem or passage that opens us up and lets us feel alive, fresh, and new again— we yearn for it to happen.

We’re leaving our palms open, reaching for the right words with open hands, and when we find them, we want to share them and wake the world. Or, at least, I do.