According to Cornelia Lahmann, PhD, a linguistic expert with the language-learning platform Babbel, language evolves to fit cultural needs. “Language is part and parcel of what we call culture, but also a driver of culture,” Dr. Lahmann says. “As our culture changes, we may need new words or [to] reconsider existing words…language affects how we view the world and behave.” The uptick in use of and interest in words using “x” (like folx, womxn, and Latinx), then, is a direct reflection of society’s need for terms that support identities that don’t fit in a gender binary, like genderqueer, trans, and agender people, among many others.
Of course, the fact that language is constantly under construction means that it’s never perfect—and the proliferation of the letter “x” is no exception. Below, get background on how the third-to-last letter in the English alphabet came to be in the first place, different schools of thought regarding its success in fostering inclusivity, and how to be the best ally you can with your word choice—regarding spelling and beyond.
How words like “folx” and “womxn” came into their modern meaning
Dr. Lahmann says that the history of “x” as a LGBTQ+-inclusive signifier has been the subject of much mystery and debate within the linguistic community—and it might ultimately come down to math.
In his 2012 TEDx Talk, linguist Terry Moore, PhD, shared how he traced the English use of the letter way back to the Arabic word that became “algebra” in English. Eventually, through translations to Spanish, then Greek, then Latin, Dr. Moore said, “x” came to represent the “unknown”—and is, as you’ll recall from middle school math class, also used in mathematics to represent the unknown variable to solve for in equations.
In his 17th century text La Géométrie, philosopher René Descartes popularized the use of “x, y, z” to represent the unknown quantities (and “a, b, c” for known quantities), says Dr. Lahmann, but “why ‘x’ became the more popularly used letter in math is speculation.”
“‘Womxn’ originated in 1971, but only gained visibility in the last decade. It demands greater inclusiveness and fluidity, encompassing trans, women, and non-binary people.” — Cornelia Lahmann, PhD
“Interestingly,” Dr. Lahmann adds, “there is also the variant of ‘womyn’ with a ‘y.'” This feminist spelling (the plural form of the singular “womon”) first appeared in print in 1975 and was added to the Oxford English dictionary in 2006, she says. “With what meaning? To avoid defining women in reference to male norms and forms,” says Dr. Lahmann. “However, some saw ‘womyn’ as not inclusive enough, in particular not including the transgender community. Running a parallel path, the word ‘womxn’ originated in 1971 but only gained visibility in the last decade. It demands greater inclusiveness and fluidity, encompassing trans, women, and non-binary people.” (But, many people in the trans and nonbinary community don’t feel this to be true.)
Folx showed up in the ’90s, while Latinx—used to describe those of Latin American descent without defaulting to the gender binary—originated in the aughts. (Filipinx is similarly used where no gender-neutral pronoun is evident.)
While there’s a “right” answer when you’re solving for “x” in algebra, though, the “x” in language can be interpreted in various ways. And not all of them necessarily station “x” as a progressive step forward into a more inclusive world.
In 2020, “x” can act as a signifier of gender non-conformity or allyship, but it’s not something with which everyone agrees
“The letter ‘x’ is a signifier in the way in which I think that the queer community, in particular, has always found ways to signal [themselves],” says Nina Kossoff, creator of ThemsHealth, an Instagram account dedicated to expanding health and wellness information beyond the gender binary. “I think of ‘x’ like the bandanas and flagging, for instance, which were an innocuous way to signal inclusion. There are different ways to mark an area as an inclusive space or to let others know of your inclusive space.”
There are indeed varying feelings and opinions regarding the space that the letter “x” currently inhabits in the non-binary community, which is why Kossoff recently asked their Instagram audience about the growing use of the letter “x” for the purposes of this article. Specifically, Kossoff asked, “What does it mean to you when you see the letter ‘x’ used in terms like ‘folx’? Why is it important?” Then they asked the same question about the term “womxn” and “Latinx,” and 121 total people responded to the questions. Responses were expansive, with some indicating they felt “x” in a seemingly already gender-neutral word, like “folks,” isn’t as critical as in a term that’s traditionally steeped in the binary, like “women.”
When it came to the word “folx,” specifically, 19 of the 23 people who responded to that question agreed that the word connoted “purposeful inclusion of trans and non-binary genders,” 14 found the term performative, and others felt apathetic or even hurt by the term. (Some reported feeling several of these things to be true at once.) Meanwhile, many responders reported finding the terms “Filipinx” and “Latinx” useful for dodging the gender constraints of certain languages, while others preferred the term “Latine” because they viewed “Latinx” as an English or Western imposition on their origins because the Spanish-language pronunciation of the letter “x” differs from the English-language pronunciation in such a way that “Latinx” is unpronounceable in Spanish.
Kossoff reports that in terms of the survey findings, “womxn” was, by far, the most contentious use of the letter “x,” with more than 70 people responding to that particular question sticker—largely in the negative. Thirty of these respondents felt “womxn” acted as a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) term, which describes feminists who purposefully exclude—and often actively other and oppress—trans women. “Nearly as strong was the sentiment that, in its effort to be inclusive of genders beyond cisgender women, the term ‘womxn’ left many community members feeling as though their trans and/or non-binary identities were being erased, or lumped in with their assigned gender at birth.”
Many responders also felt “womxn” gave off the idea of being a “woman-lite,” meaning “an individual’s assigned gender at birth still dictated the spaces they are seen and recognized in,” says Kossoff. “This is detrimental for those who don’t wish to be associated with wom(e/x/a)nhood in any way.” Racial-justice educator and Well+Good Changemaker Rachel Ricketts recently explored a similar line of questioning on her own Instagram page and found similar results (you can watch her highlight here). There was no consensus regarding best practice (although Ricketts has come to the conclusion to personally stop using the spelling “womxn”), but the general through line can be best summed up by one of Ricketts’s commenters, who wrote, “There isn’t one word that can lump so many identities up into one group.”
In short: “x” may have thousands of years of history under its belt, but like all language, it’s imperfect, complicated, and up for interpretation. And, most importantly, it means that people who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ and who use the letter “x” are not automatically effective allies. As some survey participants pointed out, the “x” can be highly performative and there are other ways—in both linguistics and beyond—allies can show up for the LGBTQ+ community when language, frankly, can’t.
How to be an ally in ways that go beyond performatively adopting the letter “x”
Currently, 14 states including Pennsylvania, Washington, and New York offer the “x” as a third option for gender identity on state IDs. But just like that change doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals who identify as non-binary will move about the world feeling a stronger sense of belonging and safety than before, an ally to the LGBTQ+ community’s use of “x” means nothing if the letter choice isn’t backed up by activism through additional avenues. For example, if you’re someone who uses the word “folx,” but you don’t yet include your pronouns on your email signature, recognize the contradiction of your choice; you’re assuming someone will just “know” your identity, but pronouns aren’t a given.
As writer Gabrielle Kassel previously wrote in a piece for Well+Good, “allyship is a verb, a process, continuous action.” Being on the side of equality for all people means being careful with language—yes—but it also means hiring and investing in queer folx, consuming educational material and engaging with pop culture that is informative about the queer experience in America, and—if you’re someone who’s hetero and cis—investing your privilege in their success.
We’re not solving for “x” here; we’re solving for equality. And as language continues to constantly evolve to be accommodating to myriad human identities and experiences, strong allies must do the work to keep their personal vocabulary intentional, researched, and up to date.
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