What’s in a Word: Enby

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What does it mean?

The word enby, alternately spelled enbie or enbee and pluralized as enbies or enbys, refers to a non-binary person (someone whose sense of self is not exclusively girl/woman or boy/man).

Where did it come from?

Enby was invented by non-binary people as a shortened form of non-binary; it’s a phonetic pronunciation of the initialism NB, for non-binary. It started gaining traction in late 2013—that’s when it was added to Urban Dictionary and first used on Twitter.

According to genderqueer writer and activist Ana Mardoll, in “Why I Use Enby and Not NB,” enby was an intentional evolution of NB, after people of color asked white non-binary folks to not use NB to mean non-binary because it was already in use to mean non-Black:

There is a tendency in social justice spaces for white-defined terms to dominate the discourse. If we continued to use “nb” for ourselves, people would start reading “NBPOC” as nonbinary people of color (who also exist!). “Enby” was created to avoid using NB. It is, in my mind, a successful example of white people agreeing not to appropriate Black language.

In a July 2018 Facebook comment, Jon Clark shared:

For lots of us, it started as code, especially in spaces where binarist identities dominated.

How is it used?

Uses of enby include:

  • “I’m an enby”
  • “Ze is my enbyfriend” (instead of girlfriend or boyfriend)
  • As a stand-in for casual gendered nouns like guy, gal, girl, and boy

Some people like it because it removes the negative prefix and allows non-binary people to have an identity term that doesn’t depend on describing ourselves by way of what we’re not, particularly when our very existence argues that there is in fact no such thing as a gender binary (see Sam Hope for a great take on this).

It’s also useful because it can be used as a noun or an adjective, as opposed to non-binary, which is an adjective only.

Should I use this term?

If you’re a non-binary person / enby yourself, sure! But enby should not be used as a replacement for non-binary in formal and/or mainstream writing. For the most part, it’s not currently being promoted as an improvement on non-binary; rather, it’s generally used as a within-community, in-group term, similar to how TG was used as an informal and within-community abbreviation of transgender for many years, and ace is used as a within-community term for asexual.

So, when writing/speaking for a general audience, a good general practice is to use non-binary, not enby. Enby is not a word that the average cisgender (non-trans) person knows, and using it puts up a barrier to understanding, because to understand enby a reader/listener generally needs to know the word non-binary (itself a relatively recent term), to get that non-binary shortens to NB, and to follow that NB phonetically spelled out is enby.

Furthermore, not all non-binary people use and/or like the term enby. For example, a lot of people experience it as cutesy or twee, some folks find it inaccessible due to the multiple layers involved, and others simply don’t care for abbreviations. So it’s good to use care when using enby.

For more on what it means to be non-binary and how to write respectfully about non-binary people, check out “This Is What Gender-Nonbinary People Look Like” by Meredith Talusan, “8 Common (But Easily Fixable) Ways We Erase Non-Binary People from Society” by Adrian Ballou, and Understanding Non-Binary People: A Guide for the Media from Trans Media Watch. *Note: this media guide offers problematic advice regarding pronouns. It is always possible to respect a person’s pronouns and it is never okay to use the wrong pronouns for a person. See section 2.4 in my transgender style guide for more on this.

What’s your take on enby? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me! Was this post helpful to you? Consider making a donation!

*Note: Grateful thanks to the folks in the Facebook group Non-Binary Gender Pride for the helpful conversation about enby that helped inform this piece.

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