Be careful when using unfamiliar words

The word ‘cis’ has recently entered the vernacular in the US and I too only recently became aware of its usage. I had assumed that it was a neologism but it appears that it is derived from an old word with Latin roots. According to Wikipedia, “Cisgender (often shortened to cis; sometimes cissexual) is a term used to describe a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth. The word cisgender is the antonym of transgender. The prefix cis- is Latin and means ‘on this side of’ “.

Pronouns have recently become part of the many culture wars that rage in the US, especially being by right-wingers, often invoking them in pathetic attempts as humor. Ted Cruz said in a speech that his pronouns are ‘kiss my ass’ while Elon Musk recently tweeted that his pronouns are ‘prosecute/Fauci’. Neither of these works as jokes because they make no sense but what they are really meant to be are dog whistles to signal to their supporters that the speaker is firmly on the side of anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

On my Zoom profile, after my name I have inserted ‘he/him/his’ to indicate my own pronouns. I hesitated for some time before doing this. It is not because I object to people specifying what pronouns they wish to be referred by but because cis people are the dominant group and trans people are the marginalized and discriminated against, and specifying that I am cis might be misinterpreted as that I was somehow proud of being so or objected to being considered trans, which is not the case. But I went ahead and did so anyway, hoping that my action would not be misinterpreted.

Musk weighed in the issue seemingly without, as usual, much thought, saying that he opposed specifying one’s pronouns when it seems obvious what one’s gender expression is, saying “Yeah, I’m not a fan of pronouns when someone is giving every possible visual cue for he or she, but then still insists on telling you exactly what you expect. I do support pronouns that aren’t completely obvious based on visual cues.”

In response Fred Scharmen put into words what I had been struggling to articulate as to why it was a good thing even if some might consider it superfluous, saying “We cis people are explicit about pronouns on top of visual cues in order to help normalize their expression for those who might not be cis. Simple as”.

Then things took a weird turn because Musk seemed to think that the word ‘cis’ is a slur of some sort that had been used by Scharmen to insult him because he responded to Scharmen, “I’m not cis, you are.” That childish, schoolyard-level retort resulted in much merriment, starting Scharmen asking “What are your pronouns, Elon?”

Whether Musk took this random opportunity to make a bold and oddly timed declaration of his gender identity or not is his own business, but the resulting replies are a mixed bag of congratulations and confused follow-up questions.

“So your new pronouns are she/her? We support you, more than you support the child who won’t even talk to you,” said Adam Heath Avitable, host of the podcast “Dating Kinda Sucks.”

“You GO, girl! live your truth queen,” tweeted Bill Corbett, writer and star of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

“So you’re trans. Weird way to come out, but good on you,” new product strategy & development professional Tom Coates added.

Musk has gone silent on this issue.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Those who have read a bit of Roman history would know the terms ‘cisalpine’ and ‘transalpine’; from the Roman viewpoint ‘this side of the Alps’ and ‘the other side of the Alps’. And more recently ‘cisjordan‘ and ‘transjordan’

  2. Dunc says

    There’s a great deal about this matter that I find depressing, but possibly the most depressing thing is finding out how many people don’t know what a pronoun is…

    “Cis” and “trans” are also common terms in organic chemistry.

  3. Bruce says

    To say that our pronouns are he/him/his does not mark us as cis. They mark us as male, whether cis male or trans male. If we cis people were to refuse to wear our pronouns, that would effectively be to say that only those “other” people (trans people) give their pronouns. So that would be socially excluding trans people needlessly, pointlessly, and cruelly.
    Chemists know that real butter, tallow, and olive oil are fats with a plurality of one site of unsaturation, which is normally in the cis configuration. In contrast, fats that have been partially hydrogenated have usually been racemized (meaning randomized orientations), thereby creating some trans fats that are unhealthy to eat. Every chemistry textbook for the past century should make the Latin terms clear.
    While trans fats should be avoided, there is no problem with trans people, obviously. To be polite, we need to know how other people prefer to be called so we can show we respect them just like any other human. But we never need to know what is inside anyone else’s pants, even if they sit in the stall next to us in a restroom. Unless we and he-or-she are agreeing to have sexual relations, it is irrelevant.

  4. kenbakermn says

    A bit off the topic, or let’s say topic-adjacent, I’ve started to wonder why we need gendered pronouns at all, at least most of the time. The gender of a pronoun rarely adds any real meaning to the sentence in which it is used that wouldn’t be served just as well by a gender-neutral pronoun. The first and second person pronouns are non-gendered and we communicate with those just fine without ambiguity.

    Certainly there will be cases in which the gender of the third person pronoun contributes some meaning to the sentence, so we should keep those. But let’s consider a simple example. If I say “he is running”, the gender of the pronoun adds no meaning and resolves no ambiguity except in the special case in which there is exactly one person identifying as ‘he’ in the population under consideration. In all other cases “ze is running” has exactly the same meaning. I’m not insisting that ‘ze’ is the pronoun we have to adopt, I’m just using that as one proposed example.

    That’s my two cents, and a bargain at half the price.

  5. Allison says

    The point of providing pronouns is to signal one’s gender in the situation where one’s gender is not easily (or not correctly) discernable from their appearance (or whatever you know about them, e.g., their name.) Since a trans person is anyone whose gender is not what they were assigned at birth (and “cis” is someone whose gender is the same as what they were assigned), there may be trans people for whom an explicit statement of their pronouns isn’t really necessary (e.g., trans man Bob Jones with crew cut, full beard, and trousers hanging around his butt) and cis people for whom they might be (e.g., slender, delicate looking cis man with a high voice, named “Ashley”.)

    One consequence of the “keep trannies out of our bathrooms!” hysteria has been that a lot of cis women have gotten attacked for being in the ladies’ room because they fail someone’s idea of what a “real woman” looks like. IOW, it’s mainly a form of gender policing.

  6. raven says

    It is a common term in chemistry to indicate geometric isomers.

    It should be familiar to everyone because we have been talking about trans fats for a long time. In fact, trans fats are banned because they turned out to be not very healthy.
    The fats in our diet are mostly cis fats.

    Cis and trans isomers are types of geometric isomers, where the functional group is placed differently with regards to the double bond. In general, a cis isomer has molecules on one side of the double bond. A trans isomer has molecules on the other side of the double bond.Jan 2, 2022

    Cis Trans Isomers -- ChemTalk › Organic Chemistry Tutorials

  7. Silentbob says

    As a bit of a space nut, I was familiar with the term “cislunar space” (the Earth -- Moon system, as opposed to interplanetary space) long before I heard the term cisgender.

    And yeah, it’s just the opposite of trans.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    Cis and trans isomers are familiar to anyone with even a quite basic background in chemistry, I’d have thought?

    There is humour to be had from the pronoun thing. On the recent triumphant one off remake of “Saturday Live” on Channel 4 in the UK, host Ben Elton introduced himself with “My pronouns are he and him, my adjectives are old, balding and tired.”

    Well, I laughed.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    ( I might add, if you haven’t seen Jordan Gray’s set from that show, it has to be seen to be believed…)

  10. Sunday Afternoon says

    Ben Elton’s immortal “double seat, double seat, gotta get a double seat” still goes round my brain when I get on a train.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    I suspect some of the “cis”-objectors think believe those people are calling them sissies.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oops, yet another html failure by me @ # 11. Not sure whether the italics should stop after “those” or “people”…

    [Fixed it … I think! -- MS]

  13. cartomancer says

    As a Latin teacher, I’ll take anything that gets Latin prefixes greater attention in modern culture. I also have a badge somewhere, saying “My pronouns are is/ea/id” (that is, Latin for he/she/it, and the standard way one refers to a pronoun ir demonstrative adjective in Latin grammar, by citing its three gendered forms) . It’s meant as a joke, mostly in that it subverts the norm you have to pick one gender, but I do occasionally worry that some could interpret it as mocking the idea of specifying one’s pronouns at all, rather than just having fun with it.

    The other thing about pronouns is that they are optional. You can always avoid them by using actual nouns, and you can avoid gendered forms by using ungendered demonstratives in English (Latin, sadly, does not have that capacity).

  14. Deepak Shetty says

    saying that he opposed specifying one’s pronouns when it seems obvious what one’s gender expression

    I wonder why is it that the absolute free speech-ists are the ones who have the most objections to other peoples speech ?
    The obvious one for Elon would be “it” though -- It seems to lack basic compassion for fellow humans.

  15. John Morales says

    [Deepak, the irony of claiming someone is an “it” because “It seems to lack basic compassion for fellow humans” is not lost on me.]

  16. billseymour says

    I briefly considered specifying he/she/it to indicate that I didn’t really care that much, but like cartomancer @13, I worried that folks who want to specify their pronouns might think that I was mocking them; so I decided that that was a bad idea.  (I actually appreciate it when folks give me a heads-up so that I can avoid being a jerk out of ignorance.)

  17. lochaber says

    I also first encountered the term “cis” in regards to gender shortly after taking an Organic Chemistry course, where I was familiar with the use of cis/trans to describe the structure of isomers. And I thought that it was a pretty brilliant solution to the question of “how do you describe non-trans people?”

    As to pronouns, one argument I’ve heard for cis people to specify their preferred pronouns is to both normalize the process, and to a lesser extent to show some familiarity with some basic gender concepts and such.

    As to the people who are getting mad about other people specifying their preferred pronouns, they must have a ridiculous amount of free time and energy, maybe they should think about getting a hobby…

  18. John Morales says

    lochaber, perhaps — but that’s precisely how Jordan Peterson really became well-known.

    His break-out move transcending mere academia.

  19. Silentbob says

    Fun fact: It’s technically pronounced “kiss” -- classical Latin had no soft c.

    But I think we’d all rather stick with the Anglicized pronunciation. 😉

  20. Silentbob says

    Pronouns have recently become part of the many culture wars that rage in the US, especially being by right-wingers, often invoking them in pathetic attempts as humor.

    I remember years ago -- probably about five years ago -- it was already a running gag among trans people I know that cis people only have two jokes: “I identify as…[something stupid]”, and “my pronouns are…[something stupid]”. The gag is they were waiting for the cis to come up with a third joke. All these years later, still no luck.


  21. xohjoh2n says


    Fun fact: It’s technically pronounced “kiss” — classical Latin had no soft c.

    Classical Latin, yes. But in Medieval/Ecclesiastical Latin, from which much academic usage hence the main usage which the modern prefixes cis- and trans- would be derived from, it would be pronounced “chis”.

    However the English pronunciation is “sis”. And since they are now well established English prefixes, that is in fact the correct pronunciation.

  22. Tethys says


    These are all the same word in three PIE languages and their respective alphabets.
    Germanic Elder Futhark doesn’t have a C at all, it has K and the Tz/Ts sounds/letters.

    It’s those darn Normans who are to blame for English which pronounces a hard C like an S.
    C’est bon?

  23. John Morales says

    Well, I did wait.

    I had assumed that it was a neologism but it appears that it is derived from an old word with Latin roots.

    It is a neologism, in the sense that it’s a novel usage first employed in 1994, in the form of ‘cisgender’. ‘Transgender’ is similarly novel, though a bit older; back in the day, it was ‘transexual’, an older version. I recall Andrew Vachss (crime fiction writer) wrote books long ago (1970s?) with a very sympathetic approach to such people, though his focus was child protection.

    So… both. A neologism and a derived one at that.

  24. Deepak Shetty says

    @john Morales @16
    Surely a hyper-literalist like yourself should note the plural ? You’ll have to wait till I demonstrate my absolute lack of compassion for another billionaire -- perhaps Mano’s next post that mentions with Bezos ?

  25. John Morales says

    Heh, Holms.

    So… I’m a hyper-literalist who doesn’t practice hyperliteratism, right?

    But then, I grant that Greek prefixes are completely different to Latin prefixes.

    Perhaps I’m ultra-literalist, to be a little more topical.
    But I don’t practice ultraliteratism, since that’s completely different.

    But, since the point is being played with, I’ll note that the claim only refers to a purported hyper-literalist like myself, rather than to one unlike myself.

    No doubt Deepak is well-versed in such fine nuances about hyper-literatists.

    (and, of course, the suffix -ist is completely different to the suffix -ism, so right then and there everything went to pot 🙂 )

  26. friedfish2718 says

    “Musk has gone silent on this issue.”
    That Mr Singham ended his essay with the above phrase reflects poorly on him and puts Elon Musk in a good light.
    Elon Musk made a clever riposte to the pronoun silliness and is mature enough not to indulge further in mud-wrestling with pigs (Mr Musk has some companies to manage).
    Toddlers are punking woke teachers by telling the idiot adults that their pronouns are cat/coconut/vanilla: the gig is up with the pronoun silliness.

  27. John Morales says

    Wow, you really are an ignoramus, aren’t ya, friedfishe?

    Toddlers are punking woke teachers by telling the idiot adults that their pronouns are cat/coconut/vanilla: the gig is up with the pronoun silliness.

    Heh. Such silly fantasies!

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