In the latest example of the growing use of inclusive language, designed to avoid excluding particular groups of people, some university groups in the United Kingdom have started using the term “womxn” rather than “women” in official communications.
The student union at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a student society at King’s College London have introduced the alternative spelling, though confusion abounds over how to pronounce the word.
Goldsmiths student union social media posts include invitations to a “Womxn’s Basketball Session” and the “Adidas Womxn’s Fun Run,” while the KCL Womxn in Physics society uses inclusive language on social media and its website.
The scientific society aims to “address the issue of underrepresentation of womxn in the physics department at King’s College London,” reads its website.
“Womxn is a more inclusive term which promotes intersectionality,” reads another page at the site.
Intersectionality refers to the overlap of different kinds of discrimination based on, for instance, sex, race, class, sexuality and ability, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, which added the word in April 2017.
As a result, “womxn” is designed to be more inclusive of all kinds of women, including trans women.
“Womxn is used to demonstrate our commitment to inclusiveness,” Goldsmiths student union told CNN in an email statement. “No student has complained about its use.”
KCL’s Womxn in Physics Society has not responded to CNN requests for comment.
The evolution of language
The use of inclusive language is increasing as English evolves, and similar debates are taking place in other languages.
“We are opening up to the idea that binary conceptions of gender are unnecessarily rigid and don’t correspond to the self-image of a great many people and even that people’s sense of their gender may not correspond to their biological sex,” wrote linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University in 2015 for CNN.
In the UK, this change is reflected in the increasing use of the gender-neutral honorific, “Mx,” on driver’s licenses and bureaucratic forms, such as banking statements, wrote Heath Fogg Davis, a Temple University political scientist, in 2017 for CNN.
Gender-neutral language has entered use more slowly in the US, Fogg Davis says.
While the recent changes at London university societies are part of a trend towards inclusive terms, their use has been criticized in some quarters.
The Wellcome Collection museum and library in London sparked confusion on social media when it used the term “womxn” in October in promotional materials.
UK Labour Party MP Jess Phillips was one of hundreds of women who wrote to the Wellcome Collection.
“I’ve never met a trans woman who was offended by the word woman being used, so I’m not sure why this keeps happening,” she tweeted.
The Wellcome Collection eventually apologized and removed uses of “womxn” from its website.