Beyond Etymology: Effeminacy, Queerness And The Power of Words

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Effeminate: the word is usually applied as a description for someone else, a man with so-called female mannerisms. It is rarely claimed as an identity, or as a self-description. Perhaps among gay men, effeminacy has been so maligned that it only exists as a label for someone less manly, and thus less sexually desirable. Among genderqueers, however, the word may be gaining a little more traction as a personal self-description.

The word “effeminate” has been used to degrade males, but it is not essentially a degrading word, if perhaps etymologically misleading. It means “to be like a woman,” in Latin. Such linguistic constructions are a product of an oppressive binary gender system, because they do not refer to a man as he is, but in terms of what he is not. He is described by his supposed transgression of his gender, rather than in terms that celebrate his naturalness as he is. In addition, the maligning of effeminate men by both straight and gay communities is a result of simple misogyny, a cultural ideology we should strive to overturn at every opportunity.

Regardless of its complicated usages and connotations, I like the word effeminate. I use it to describe myself, to celebrate myself. I see it as distinct from feminine, and do not use the words interchangeably. Perhaps the word I have questioned more is effete. gives the definition of effete:

lacking in wholesome vigor; degenerate; decadent: an effete, overrefined society

exhausted of vigor or energy; worn out: an effete political force

unable to produce; sterile.

Effete is often used interchangeably with effeminate, thus equating weakness and degeneracy with effeminacy by virtue of the words’ similar sounds. However, the two words, effete and effeminate, are not related. Effete, actually, means exhausted from giving birth, exhausted from fetus. It is related to the more distinctly female activity. It is, then, a wearing out of feminine vigor, rather than a lack of masculine vigor.

I want to glorify effeminacy, not by seeking its roots, but by embracing it as the phenomenon we know it to be, in lived experience. Though many words we use are rooted in Latin and in our cultural legacy of binary gender policing, the words are reborn every time they are uttered, as whole and living things. We have observed the power of the reclaiming of the word queer. First the word is a weapon against us, then a weapon some of us use to defend us, and to demonstrate our fearlessness and warrior spirit. Finally it becomes commonplace but mysterious, forever enchanted. Queer is a much-loved word precisely because it has no literal, specific, father-tongue meaning. When courageous activists and survivors pulled it up from the depths where it had fallen, it was transformed. Cleansed of its old meanings, it became a holding place for things without number. It emitted energy, rather than structuring and codifying meaning.

Such it is with effiminacy, or any word that becomes important to someone. Gender-variant people have been choosing words for themselves for some time now. Sometimes the etymology or the best known interpretation of the word leads to the choice of that identity label. Other times, the word simply feels right. The seeker knows that the word is as appropriate as a word can be, though the shadow of the codifying father-tongue hangs over it at times. Some people construct long strings of words, which when grouped together, create both a harmony and a dissonance. The dissonance, that is, the space where words do not meet or harmonize, is the space of possibility, where unknowable truths are sure to emerge.

I proudly call myself effeminate, and I wonder if despite its unrelated etymology we might one day draw the word effete into the fold of possibility. It is a beautiful word, stunning in its composition. It is both gentle and quick. It begins softly and concludes with surety. It might be useful to someone.


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