Well, yes, this is a wordplay blog. But, the current edition is a mix of the personal and the linguistic. The question this week is whether we must have an Indian honorific for transgenders. And, if yes, what are your suggestions?
Two examples have been highlighted at the end of this piece: on the Oxford English Dictionary adding Mx to the list of honorifics and on the Swedish Academy adopting a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.
Now for the personal
India's disastrous tour of Australia in the summer of 2011-12 affected me in more ways than one. Though the 4-0 washout was heartbreaking, many of us in the press box had a feeling that we were watching history in the making. It was Sachin Tendulkar's last tour Down Under. The Very Very Special one, too, walked into the sunset. Beyond cricket, the tour changed my views on transgenders forever.
THE WEEK is a newsweekly, reporters often are not seated in the main press box. We sit in overflow boxes, far from the daily and agency crowd. At the Sydney Cricket Ground overflow box, a pleasant and soft-spoken man walked into the hearts of the Indian press corps. Malcolm McGregor, we would learn by and by, was a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army officer and a prolific cricket writer. He was also the Australian Army chief's speech writer and strategic adviser. The summer brought us close.
We met last in Adelaide in January 2012, from where I flew back home. Memorably, both of us watched Darren 'Boof' Lehmann being immortalised in bronze. The whole press box stood up and cheered when Malcolm entered the room on Australia Day, January 26. He had become a Member of the Order of Australia that day. The overflow box gang stuck out their collective tongues at the main press box boys. We got the AM, guv'nors. Another familiar name was on the honours list that day: Ricky Ponting.
Cate later told The Sydney Morning Herald about that day: “They’d announced it at the Adelaide Oval. Ricky Ponting and I were both in the same list. And I’m sitting in the grandstand thinking I’d rather be dead.” That statement ripped through my heart. My friend wanted to be dead and I had not a clue!
Later that year, Malcolm became Cate. And, from that torrid summer was born her amazing book: An Indian Summer of Cricket. But, my struggle with myself had just begun. Coming from a patriarchal Syrian Christian family that viewed the Bible as cast in stone, I struggled to understand Malcolm's transformation.
In the end, I asked myself one question: Malcolm was a generous, kind and friendly man. Did I have reason to believe that Cate would be different? No. The goodness would remain unchanged, I had no doubt. And, my views on transgenders changed forever.
Malcolm McGregor did not become Catherine McGregor for profit. In fact, Malcolm walked through fire to become what he knew he always was. And, that fire, I am sure, lit a million candles in Australia and in the hearts of all of us in the overflow box.
She transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force last year, and is now Group Captain Cate McGregor.
Love you, Cate, my mate.
Hey, that rhymes!
The language bit
Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms and Mx. The last one has apparently been around since the late 1970s. But, recently, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word to its collection, as its “first trans-affirming honorific”. The new honorific can be used by transgenders or those not wanting to reveal their gender. It will be pronounced as mix or mux while abbreviated, and as mixter when expanded.
Linguists say that pronouns become fixed in a person's head as a child. Hence, native speakers have an edge when speaking languages like Hindi and French, which have masculine and feminine nouns. So, Mx will add a dimension to English. It could complicate matters in Hindi. Critics say the new honorific is a sham because first names can very often indicate gender.
Some Aussies have an interesting reservation about Mx. News Corp has a magazine called mX, which is circulated in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane!
Once in a decade, the Swedish Academy updates its official dictionary, the Svenska Akademiens Ordlista aka SAOL. The newest edition, which hit the market on April 15, has 13,000 new words. One of them is hen!
In Swedish, he is han and she is hon. Hen will serve as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun. SAOL editors say hen can be used to refer “to a person without revealing their gender. Either because it is unknown, or because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information.”
Hen has a long history in Sweden. It was coined in the 1960s to avoid the he/she construction, but did not take off. The clumsy he/she construction is used in English, too. Hen gained traction recently. Hence, the SAOL entry.