What’s in a Word: Mx.

Mx
Full image description

What does it mean?

Mx. is a non-binary or gender-neutral title of courtesy, equivalent to Ms., Mrs., and Mr. It’s most often pronounced “mix” or “məx” (with a schwa, or toneless vowel sound).

Where did it come from?

Mx. was first spotted in print in a 1977 issue of the U.S. magazine Single Parent in a short story by Pat Kite: “…maybe both sexes should be called Mx. That would solve the gender problem entirely.” Nat Titman of Practical Androgyny turned up evidence that throughout the ’80s and ’90s there was a scattering of people talking about Mx. or using it as a title themselves. During this period, Mx. was talked about as an “all-purpose” title.

After the turn of the century, Mx. became increasingly used within trans communities, particularly by genderqueer people. It took hold most prominently in the UK, and by 2013 it was in fairly widespread mainstream use there, popping up in many drop-down forms and being accepted everywhere from the post office (starting in 2009) to the National Health Service (starting in 2012).

One of the most famous people to help popularize Mx. is the singer-songwriter and performance artist Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, who has been using the title since 2011.

How is it used?

This is where it gets complicated. There’s no question that Mx. was originally proposed as a universal title in reaction to Ms., which took off in the 1970s. Why stop with creating an equivalent to Mr. for women, many people rightly asked—why is gender locked into terms of respect to begin with?

But there’s also no question that Mx. was not successful as an “all-purpose” title, and only started being used in earnest when people who were not women or men started claiming it, including many genderqueer, agender, and intersex folks.

So is Mx. gender-neutral or non-binary? Is it gender-inclusive, meaning anyone can use it for themselves or for others when they want to avoid gender? Or is it gender-exclusive and specific to non-binary people, meaning its use marks the name that follows as belonging to someone who is not a woman or a man?

The answer is: there’s no consensus.

Cassian Lodge, who runs the impressive Gender Census worldwide annual survey of non-binary people, did a smaller survey in 2019 on the use of Mx. Unsurprisingly, they found that the majority of people who use Mx. are non-binary. What was surprising (to me at least) was this: “People whose titles were not Mx considered it to be a nonbinary title by a wide margin, but people whose titles were Mx considered it to be inclusive.”

Among the non-binary people who took the survey, 47% considered Mx. inclusive, meaning anyone can use it, and 42% considered Mx. exclusive, meaning only non-binary people should use it. So it’s clear that people are very mixed on what Mx. means to them and how it should be used.

Cassian themself strongly believes that Mx. is gender-inclusive and gender-neutral, not gender-exclusive and non-binary-specific. Others, such as Mx. Margaret D. Jones, who has been using Mx. since 2002, strongly believe that Mx. is gender-exclusive and must be used only by people who do not identify exclusively as women or men.

Dictionaries haven’t quite gotten it right

Unfortunately, mainstream dictionaries have muddled things considerably by not giving full credence to the fact that the most common current usage of Mx. is by people who are not women or men—and that while some people (including many non-binary people) use Mx. in a gender-neutral manner, just as many use it in a non-binary-specific way.

The Oxford English Dictionary, the first major English dictionary to add an entry for Mx., in August 2015, defined it as “A title used before a person’s surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female.” This is marginally accurate, but grouping non-binary people together with all “those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female” has the effect of invalidating us and making it seem as though we are female or male but just prefer not to identify ourselves as such.

Merriam-Webster first gave a nod to Mx. in a “Words We’re Watching” post, which stated that Mx. is “a title for those who do not identify as being of a particular gender, or for people who simply don’t want to be identified by gender.” This is an incredibly frustrating turn of phrase, for although some people who use Mx. are agender or otherwise don’t have a gender, most people who use Mx. do, in fact, “identify as being of a particular gender”—those genders just aren’t “woman” or “man.”

And after Merriam-Webster added Mx. to its unabridged dictionary in April 2016, its Twitter account tweeted the explanation, “‘Mx.’ is a gender-neutral honorific for those who don’t wish to be identified by gender”—a tweet that subsequently went viral, even though it provides only half the story and invisibilizes those non-binary people who use Mx. in order to identify their gender as non-binary, which is quite the opposite usage.

How, then, should we understand Mx.?

The split in opinion regarding what Mx. means and how it should be used points to a couple of important truths.

Many people, non-binary and binary alike, really want a way to confer respect that doesn’t gender people. The concept of a gender-neutral title is deeply compelling for this reason. A lot of non-binary people want Mx. to take off as a universal honorific so that they can have a title that doesn’t “other” them as non-binary, which is super legit.

Many other non-binary people really want a title that communicates that they are not women or men. A lot of these folks use Mx. for this reason. And although Mx. is by far the most popular creative title, there are many others in use by non-binary people around the world, including Ind. (for individual), M., Misc., Mre. (for mystery), Msr., Pr. (for person), Ser., Xr., and Zr. (Some of these are gender-neutral and some are non-binary-specific.)

Should I use Mx.?

If you are non-binary (and/or trans), and Mx. speaks to you, definitely go for it. But don’t feel like you have to. According to the 2019 Gender Census, which surveyed more than 11,000 non-binary people, a third of non-binary people use Mx. but another third prefer no honorific at all. The final third use gendered titles like Ms. and Mr., professional titles like Dr. and Rev., or other invented titles such as those listed above.

If you are a cisgender (non-trans) woman or man and you are jazzed about the idea of a gender-neutral title, that’s great. That said, you should use care before adopting Mx. for yourself. As Mx. Margaret D. Jones reflected:

“Recently I’ve encountered the phenomenon of cisgender individuals being enthusiastically attracted to the mere concept of taking up the use of Mx, without knowing anything about it. … It seems just the novelty of a new title being put in a dictionary may make a person keen to ‘give it a try,’ as one person put it. … It’s important to make a change to using Mx purposefully and not just for the fun of it or for some other frivolous reason. Cisgender people using Mx … to hide their gender, may also play into the hands of critics and transmisogynists (haters of transgender people) who claim transgender and agender people are really in some sense hiding or trying to avoid being men or women.”

In terms of whether you should use Mx. to refer to someone else, my best advice is to only refer to people as Mx. if they use this title for themselves. At least at the moment, Mx. is not in widespread use to refer to people whose gender or title is unknown. And because so many people consider Mx. a non-binary-specific title, calling Ms. Sue Smith, a trans woman, “Mx. Smith” would be an act of misgendering her.

What’s an ally to do?

It’s important to note that if you’re not non-binary/trans, it’s not possible to opt out of having cisgender privilege simply by adopting Mx. yourself. We need your help in tackling the larger systems that make it so difficult to exist in the world without being classified as female or male.

If you’re looking to be an active ally, the best thing you can do in this area is advocate for (a) always respecting people’s chosen names, pronouns, and titles (no matter what they are), and (b) doing away with requirements for gender-specific forms of respect.

The split in opinion and usage of Mx. has a sibling struggle in the lack of a gender-neutral alternative to ma’am and sir. Although non-binary/trans people have had many ideas over the years, I feel very skeptical that there will ever be a single gender-neutral alternative that works in all contexts. Any word we invent will invariably be associated primarily with non-binary people and will struggle to acquire universal usage.

So it would help a lot if we all did what we could to normalize referring to people respectfully without depending on gendered titles like Ms. and Mr. or gendered forms of address like ma’am and sir. This may be a lot harder in places like the U.S. South, where these forms of address are a part of the cultural dialect. But the more we can do to be able to be respectful to each other without needing to know each other’s gender, the better.

In particular, if you are in charge of forms, surveys, computer systems, and the like, advocate for not requiring a title. Simply adding Mx. to the drop-down menu is nice for those who use Mx., but a full third of non-binary people and lots of cisgender folks prefer no title at all. Give people a chance to tell you how they want to be referred to.

At the end of the day, titles are meant to confer respect. Plenty of people prefer Mrs. to Ms., or want to be addressed by their first name, or have military or religious titles that are often not included in standard lists. So take the time to find out, and then address people in the way that makes them feel most respected.



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 Mx.? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me! Was this post helpful to you? Consider making a donation!


More posts you might like:

arc_folx_final
Ask a Radical Copyeditor: “Folx”
A paragraph of text that's been corrected to be more respectful of trans people
The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People
A word bubble that says "Elizabeth loves their cat; they are a big cat lover; they did something nice for themself yesterday," plus the text of an update to the Radical Copyeditor's Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People (text in graphic reprinted in full below)
“They” as a Personal Pronoun

13 thoughts on “What’s in a Word: Mx.

  1. I find it classist for groups to use titles such as Rev. and Dr. without the equivalent of Mr./Ms/Mrs./Mx etc.—I am thinking of religious/academic groups. I recently advocated for one group to drop the titles in a brochure (I originally added Mr. and Ms, and when I got push-back, suggested dropping all).

    Not sure exactly how this fits in, other than expressing agreement with the “drop honorifics” suggestion.

    Maybe simply “M” for a gender-neutral equivalent if a honorific must be used for some reason?

    Like

  2. Hey,
    I’m thinking of sharing this, though I admit I’m still in the process of reading it.

    I’m having difficulty parsing this that appears in the intro graphic.– “If you are not non-binary and you are compelled by the idea of a gender-neutral title, use care. Don’t use Mx. flippantly or in a universal manner.” I’m tripped up specifically by the use of the word “compelled” in this context. Can you clarify?

    Thanks!

    Like

      1. Thanks, that’s what I thought. It took me a couple of seconds in this context because I think some non-binary people who don’t want to use the term for those who identify with Mx. may be, indeed, compelled to do so by the organization they work for.

        Good article!

        Like

      2. Yep, that’s what I meant (“intrigued, interested, attracted”; find the idea of Mx. compelling; etc.). I’m confused by your statement about being forced to use Mx. Are you talking about non-binary people who don’t want to use the term for binary people who use Mx. for themselves?

        Like

      3. Thank you! I did sort that out after a minute. Definitely my understanding was influenced by my experience.

        People who have opposed change in our society, including change in language, will continue to do so. I see pushback coming from them, and a resistance to use this title in appropriate situations, despite direction or instruction from whatever authority (whether communications department or HR, etc.) is setting the course.

        That’s where my mind automatically goes first when I see “compelled”– apparently regardless of context.

        Like

  3. Oh goodness. I recently used Mx. in a cover letter. What do you suggest for an honorific in a business setting when you don’t want to assume gender based on name?

    Like

    1. I will often start a business letter simply with “Greetings” if I don’t know the individual, but I don’t work in a very traditional field—or should say “didn’t”, as I am retired for some time. Earlier, in the comment that I thought had vanished, I suggested just M (though it could look French. . . .).

      Interested in what ideas others have.

      Like

      1. What njsally said! Avoid titles for people whose titles you don’t know and can’t find out through a google search. Sometimes you can use their job title, such as “Director Smith” or “Professor Doe.” (You’re right, njsally, that “M.” has not taken off because it means Monsieur in French, so it feels gendered to many people.) But I would definitely not use Mx. in a cover letter unless I knew the recipient used that title for themself.

        Like

  4. “It’s important to make a change to using Mx purposefully and not just for the fun of it or for some other frivolous reason. ”

    What do you do when a cisgender person uses, or says they would like to use Mx? Ask them for their motivation? Warn them that this is controversial or playing into the hands of critics and transmisogynists? Accept their desire to name themselves as they choose?

    Like

      1. What eub said! Particularly the part about context. Rule #1 of radical copyediting is: never police people’s language. If it seems like someone is using Mx. frivolously, maybe gently help them understand the larger context. If it seems like someone is making fun of Mx., maybe intervene and offer a course correction. If it seems like someone has used care and discernment in adopting Mx., maybe celebrate it.

        Like

      2. “never police people’s language”
        I really like that—I recently had a Twitter conversation with someone who was complaining about grammar rules. I pointed out that maybe calling them “guidelines” or “mutually-agreed conventions” would be better, and got a good reply, that “rules” sounds like someone is looking over one’s shoulder looking for errors. NOT what leads to good communication!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s