The Oxford English Dictionary announced on Sunday it is going to include the gender-neutral honorific "Mx." -- pronounced "mix" -- to represent transgender people and people who don't want to be identified by gender, reports the Sunday Times of London.
Although the idea of replacing the traditional honorifics "Mr.," "Mrs." and "Miss," and the later "Ms.," with the gender-neutral "Mx." seems a wholly contemporary development, OED assistant editor Jonathan Dent in the announcement Sunday said the first recorded use of Mx. was discovered in a 1977 issue of "Single Parent," an American magazine.
“The early proponents of the term seem to have had gender politics as their central concern [and] saw the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of the traditional ‘Mr.,' ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss,'” Dent told the Sunday Times.
Perhaps more surprising than the idea that single parents were proponents of an honorific associated with gender activists like trans performer Mx. Justin V. Bond, who's been using "Mx." for years, is the fact that U.K. banks and government agencies are already giving customers the "Mx." option.
'Mx' Already Common In The UK
Mx Activist released proof of such usage in Britain, including documents from the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Royal Mail Group and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which offer their customers a gender-neutral "Mx" option. (In British usage, honorifics are not followed by a period.)
Not exactly the kinds of organizations you'd expect to be in the vanguard of trans and "genderqueer" causes.
Before the OED's revelation that the first instance of "Mx" was found in an American periodical from the seventies, Practical Androgyny did some sleuthing of its own, finding an example from a Google Groups Usenet archive from July 1982 on the newsgroup net.nlang in which one person suggested using "Mx" during a discussion of gender-neutral pronouns:
Subject: More words and sex Newsgroups: net.nlang Posted: Fri Jul 9 15:48:43 1982
while we’re at it, let’s get rid of all this Miss/Mrs/Mr/Ms crap. It wasn’t much of a step to go from Miss/Mrs to Ms; after all, the issue should be that gender is unimportant. How about one generic title for everyone? For instance, M. Smith, M. Jones. But that’s flawed, it might be confused with Monsieur, a blatantly sexist word. From now on, we should all go by Mx, pronounced “mix” or “mux.” This will make the world safe for democracy by concealing our genders from the sexist element.
Mx. John Eldridge
'Ms.' Used To Be Novel Too
The history of "Mx." and its move into mainstream usage has obvious parallels to the honorific "Ms.," which had similarly obscure beginnings, until it, too, was picked up decades later. In his historiography of the term "Ms.," the New York Times' Ben Zimmer unearthed the first usage in a letter to the editor in the Nov. 10, 1901, edition of the Sunday Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts. In the letter, an anonymous writer proposed an alternative to "Miss" and "Mrs." for women:
“There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill," the anonymous pioneer writes. "Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.”
In place of this void, the letter writer suggested “a more comprehensive term that does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation."
Although "Ms." was widely discussed in newspapers around the U.S. in 1901, according to Zimmer, it did not emerge again until 1932 -- again in the form of a letter to a newspaper, this time the New York Times, proposing that "a woman whose marital status is in doubt" should be addressed as "M's" or "Miss."
â€” Rae Tutera (@handsomefmnst) May 4, 2015
And after being knocked about in 1950s business etiquette books and in academic debates by grammarians, "Ms." became rooted into the soil of actual linguistic usage when, in 1961, 22-year-old civil rights worker Sheila Michaels saw it on a piece of her roommate's mail and began to crusade in public for its use. Gloria Steinem heard her in a radio interview passionately arguing for the feminist honorific. The first issue of Steinem's "Ms." magazine appeared in December 1971 -- and the rest is history. (Although the New York Times, Zimmer sheepishly notes, didn't begin using "Ms." until 1986!)
Regarding the inclusion of Mx. to the OED, Dent was philosophical.
"This is an example of how the English language adapts to people's needs, with people using language in ways that suit them rather than letting language dictate identity to them," he told the Sunday Times.