Latinx and Mx: the X factor
X. It marks the spot. It means ten, or a kiss. It stands for an unknown or variable quantity, or a mysterious person. It crosses out something we don’t want, or, as on a ballot, it indicates something that we do. X is used to denote a generation, an adult rating, a special talent, a chromosome. The pronunciation of the letter x in English words is unusually variable – ‘z’, ‘sh’, ‘ks’ or ‘eks’, ‘h’ or ‘kh’, or it can be silent. Not many English words begin with x — though here’s an introduction to those that do. X appears in some regular suffixes, such as the feminine ending –trix (aviatrix, dominatrix) and the plural we use for certain words of French origin (bureaux), and of course it ends some more everyday words such as box or sex. X is also used in the gender-neutral title Mx, which entered the Oxford English Dictionary last year, and in the adjective and noun Latinx, which has come to more recent prominence. What are those xs doing there, and how do we pronounce them?
OED’s Jonathan Dent tells us more about Mx.: ‘Early proponents seem to have had gender politics as their central concern, seeing the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of traditional gendered titles such as Mr, Mrs, and Miss, and which could be equally and neutrally applied to both men and women, in the same way that Ms (first suggested as a new honorific in 1901) had been used to avoid making a distinction between married and unmarried women. Since 2000, Mx seems to have become particularly associated with those whose gender identity is non-binary, including intersex or transgender people. It also continues to appeal to anyone who prefers not to be identified and addressed in terms of their gender or who prefer not to presuppose someone else’s preferred gender identity. In the last half decade it has increasingly been adopted by companies such as banks, government agencies, universities, and other organizations in the UK as a title by which the people dealing with these bodies can choose to be addressed in correspondence.’
Mx is pronounced with the x as ‘ks’. A vowel is also needed, for which the choice is the same as for Ms: either a short i (as mix), or with an unstressed central vowel called schwa. The choice of the letter x is probably in the sense of ‘an unknown quantity’ here, although the idea of it obliterating the unwanted –r or –s which would bring gender specificity is also appealing.
Many Spanish nouns and adjectives have masculine and feminine endings using –o and –a. People writing in Spanish, especially online, who wish to include both forms sometimes use an @ sign, which visually combines a and o: ¡Hola amig@s! This serves as a way to give equal priority to masculine and feminine forms, and rejects the traditional grammatical assumption that ‘the male embraces the female’, although the Royal Spanish Academy does not, apparently, approve. This practice is also sometimes used with words of Spanish origin in American English such as Chicano/Chicana. However, the @ sign is quite hard to say out loud – this is always the first thing I think about as a lexicographer who specializes in pronunciation! – and in practice is usually expanded out into both words when spoken (todos y todas etc.). Another problem that using the @ sign is perceived to have in some quarters is that it enforces a gender binary – the choice is between masculine Latino and feminine Latina.
This is where Latinx comes in. As in Mx, the –x ending is intended to stand for an unspecified or variable quantity, and a rejection of the binary choice between –o or –a (or some sort of typographical combination of those two). The usage is illustrated in this quotation from an American university’s handbook: ‘The purpose of using x is to allow for the Chicano, Chicana, Latino, Latina community to be gender expansive, meaning it includes all those who identify and don’t identify within the gender spectrum. This can include, but is not limited to, trans and gender-queer folk.’ While there are indications online that the word has origins reaching back around ten years, verifiable uses of Latinx start to appear on Twitter and Google Groups from the second half of 2012, and features in American student newspapers such as the Harvard Crimson and Independent Florida Alligator from 2014. It was already gaining ground in more mainstream media use before it came to greater prominence when it featured in coverage of the horrifying mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando last month: many of the victims were members of both the LGBTQ and Latinx communities.
There is consensus on the pronunciation as ‘lat-een-ecks’, although I’m still listening for definitive evidence on where the stress should fall (I hear it both on the penultimate and the final syllable). The word Latinx is being considered for a future Oxford Dictionaries update, and it will be interesting to see whether the –x ending in this particular sense generates more vocabulary in the future.