Weekly Word Watch: sex and gender, xuan fu tiaozhan, and nationalism
It’s another Weekly Word Watch — and another week of words addressing some of the biggest themes of our times. We’ve got the politics of identity and the identity of politics in this batch, with some conspicuous consumption and social media thrown in for good measure.
Sex and gender
Behind many of the terms we’ve highlighted on the Word Watch is the changing language of sex and gender. This week, the Trump administration triggered concern and outcry in the US based on proposed definitions of those very words, sex and gender.
The New York Times reported on a policy memo from the US Department of Health and Human Services seeking to define gender ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable’. For sex, it went on: ‘Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth’.
Yet science, and society, increasingly understand sex and gender not as ‘clear’ but complex, not as ‘objective’ but constructed and environmental, not as ‘immutable’ but fluid. This evolving understanding has given us, in recent decades, a host of new terms to account for the inadequacy of terms — and their historic, conventional definitions — like sex and gender, male and female. Transgender, intersex, non-binary, genderqueer, and gender-fluid are some prominent examples in the lexicon.
From protest rallies to the hashtag campaign #WontBeErased, responses to the memo illustrate that definitions have very real consequences. Not only do they have the power to determine the legal rights of non-cisgender individuals, but they also influence their representation, their inclusion, their visibility — their place and value in broader life.
On the Word Watch, we try our best to prevent Trump news from sucking all the lexical oxygen out of the room. This week, however, his word choice drove to the heart of a leading political phenomenon of our day: nationalism.
At a campaign rally in the state of Texas this week, Trump distanced himself from another hot-button buzzword in the past few years: globalist. In doing so, he remarked:
You know, they have a word — it’s sort of became old-fashioned – it’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.
In current discourse, nationalist may not be so much as ‘old-fashioned’ as it is, in the very least, problematic. The term nationalist, recorded in its political sense by the 1840s, is literally an advocate of nationalism, which prioritizes a nation to the exclusion of others and is closely associated with 20th-century fascism. But words are never one-dimensional, and nationalist in the US especially evokes white nationalism, leading many critics of Trump to interpret his word choice as a dog whistle for racism and xenophobia.
How we define words can have a very material impact on our lives, as we saw in the case of sex and gender. So, too, does how we use words, with the diction of nationalist, despite Trump’s own claims to the contrary, serving to amplify and affirm hateful and dangerous ideologies such as white nationalism.
Divisive political language is not exclusive to the US. Stewart Jackson, former chief of staff for conservative British MP David Davis, wrote ‘pathetic cretin’ in response to a tweet from the stepfather of a child who was upset he had to miss a march demanding a new referendum on Brexit. The tweet showed the young boy, recovering from an operation, draped in an EU flag.
Despite backlash, Jackson has not not apologized for his insult, cretin. It’s a very colourful term of abuse for a ‘stupid or contemptible person’ — with an equally colourful history. Cretin is recorded in the late 18th century, borrowed from the French crétin. It originally referred to people in the Alps whose hyperthyroidism stunted their physical growth and cognitive development. This affliction, once called cretinism, now goes by congenital iodine deficiency syndrome.
Cretin joins other words, such as moron, idiot, and retard, that were once accepted medical terms for individuals with cognitive delays or impairment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were eventually renamed, but not without becoming general insults for ‘stupid’ or ‘obnoxious’ people. Retard, in particular, has become a slur due to this history. Words like cretin, moron, and idiot haven’t become taboo, though our growing sensitivity to identity in culture — again, as we saw with sex and gender — are beginning to make them controversial.
As for the etymology of cretin, it’s not exactly certain. The prevailing suggestion traces the French crétin to the Swiss dialectical crestin, which has been rooted in the Latin Christianum, or ‘Christian’. This is the origin that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provided in 1893. We generally don’t like to rely on entries that haven’t been updated, but it’s worth quoting this older edition’s explanation for why Christian may have supplied cretin: Christian, here, means ‘“human creature” as distinguished from the brutes; the sense being here that these beings are really human, though so deformed physically and mentally’. Calling someone a cretin isn’t very Christian, as we say, but etymologically, apparently, it is. Now, as for OED’s brutes…
Xuan fu tiaozhan
Let’s end this Word Watch on a lighter note — if that’s what we’re calling the conspicuous display of wealth on social media. A trend, said to have started in Russia, has recently been sweeping China. It shows young women photographing themselves as if they’ve fallen out of a high-end cars, the luxury contexts of their designer handbags spilling on to the ground. It has inspired, true to internet form, many imitators and parodies.
The trend is being called the Falling Stars Challenge or Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge. Lexically, it caught our attention not because of any envy of Lamborghinis or lipsticks, but because, first, it’s yet another member of the growing corpus of social media challenges shaping our digital language and lives.
Second, the trend gives us an occasion to learn some Chinese. As The Guardian reported, the challenge is going by xuàn fù tiǎozhàn (炫富挑战) in Mandarin Chinese. Very approximately, that’s pronounced like shyen-foo tyow-jen. Tiaozhan means ‘challenge’ while xuan fu roughly translates to ‘show off wealth’ — or flaunt, as we say in English.
For its part, flaunt, or ‘display ostentatiously’, is recorded in the 1560s. Its origin is obscure. Suggestions include a variation on flout and vaunt as well as a Scandinavian root meaning ‘to flutter’, ‘waver’, or ‘rush around’, as one flourishes a flag. Whether we call it flaunt or xuan fu, and whether we find it funny or frustrating, one thing is for sure: at least social media doesn’t dumb down our vocabulary.