Sitting in my doctor’s waiting room the other day I glanced up at the information screen to see the name of someone summoned for an appointment: three words, the first and last names of the patient, preceded by ‘Mx’. 

I at first thought this must be misprint, for the word had never crossed my path before. But I quickly (or fairly quickly) realised that ‘Mx’ must be an honorific, like ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ (almost obsolete now) or ‘Ms.’ I had thought the last was a fail-safe term for use by anyone unwilling or afraid to identify as female. But the world’s thinking on the subject of sex – or rather ‘gender’, the modern term for it – has moved forward rapidly and I find I’m not a year or two but several decades out of date. 

My online dictionary tells me that ‘Mx’ was introduced in the 1970s and I imagine its use was always confined to people with rather extreme views on the subject. Its wider application has no doubt been hampered by the fact that ‘Mx’ has no obvious pronunciation. Even ‘Ms’ has presented nothing like such a difficulty: it can be enunciated as a short monosyllable, which is perhaps no more abstruse than ‘Mrs’ – which of course is an abbreviation of ‘Mistress’. ‘Mr’, we know, is an abbreviation of ‘Mister’, from the French ‘Monsieur’, and so our prior knowledge provides us with the clue (if we need one) as to how the word is pronounced.   

But ‘Mx’? This isn’t an abbreviation, and there are no antecedents to help us make sense of it.  No, that ‘x’ isn’t related to any word: it’s there to make an independent statement: ‘I don’t want to commit myself to possessing any particular gender, male or female, and I want you, my interlocutor, to know that I have views on this, views that it’s important you should recognise.’ The very unpronounceability of ‘Mx’ pulls us up short, buttonholes us, presents us with a question, if not a problem. ‘Mx’ is not a social convenience: it’s a political statement.

Well, we’re getting used to people thrusting their slogans at us, and maybe some of us are happy that everyone else should placidly accept the new suggestion, though somehow it’s done with remarkable aggression: that unpronounceable ‘x’ is definitely a challenge. It belongs with other neologisms like ‘latinx’, invented by the lobby that is, or gives the impression of being, spooked by any suggestion that physical differences between the sexes actually exist. My main objection to this development is that it’s so uninventive. Surely the committed activists who want to change our ideas by changing our vocabulary should have the wit to invent pronounceable words? 

The appearance of the word (if word it can be called) ‘Mx’ on my doctor’s waiting-room screen indicates – doesn’t it? – that it can no longer be thought of as the mere quirk of a tiny and obscure minority. We live in an age when the interests of minorities – often almost vanishingly small ones – are accorded hugely disproportionate attention, in the interest of ‘democracy’ which by a fascinating mutation, has become a justification not for the majority but for the exceptions that run counter to the majority. And – a last thought on the subject – how does this non-gendered patient expect to be treated by the doctor, who no doubt recognises people as physically cut-and-dried males and females, when the two of them meet?

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