Dealing with gender identity these days is a tricky business. And while we prefer to use “sex” to describe biological and procreative characteristics, “gender” has become the more common term to describe identity.

A photo caption in The New York Times highlights the situation: A woman writing about her college experience said: “I used to say freshwoman until I was told it might offend cisgenders.” She added: “Mills is inclusive, and we’re all part of the deconstruction of societal gender binaries.”

Indeed.

The term “cisgender” may be traceable to Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook, in a 2009 article (PDF) in Gender & Society. They use “cisgender” to describe heterosexual people who are comfortable in the sex they were born with. The “cis” prefix—rhymes with “sis”—means “on the same side,” as opposed to the prefix “trans,” which means “on the other side.” (It’s unclear why using “freshwoman” might offend “cisgenders,” but never mind. The point is made.)

Not yet a mainstream word, “cisgender” has appeared in Nexis only about 160 times, starting in 2007, and mostly in college or alternative media, or in academic contexts. It’s absent from most dictionaries, even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. But it has a more clinical, more formal, feel than “straight,” and may yet catch on. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with “heterosexual,” either.

Other terms dealing with gender identity are more open to discussion. Both “transsexual” and “transgendered” can refer to a person who identifies as a member of the sex opposite his or her sex at birth, or a person who has undergone chemical or surgical procedures to adopt the opposite sex. Some people say only those who have actually had physical “sex reassignment” can be called “transsexual.” Many people consider the term “tranny” offensive when used outside the “trans” community. And “sex change,” some argue, is less accurate than “sex reassignment,” because many people having it have always viewed their sex as the one now being “assigned.”
“Transgenderist” seems to be the earliest noun form, traced by the OED to 1979; a usage note with the adjective, first identified in 1974, says: “Although often used (esp. among participants in transgender lifestyles) as a generic and inclusive term which deliberately avoids categorizations such as transsexual or transvestite, in wider use transgender is sometimes used synonymously with these more specific terms.”
The adjective “transgender” showed up in the fourth edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, first published in 1998, but its definition doesn’t help matters any: a person whose “sexuality is not readily characterized as exclusively male or female.” The American Heritage Dictionary fourth edition defined “transgendered” as “Appearing as, someone wishing to be considered as, or having undergone surgery to become a member of the opposite sex.” The fifth edition, published last year, adopts more contemporary wording: “Identifying as or having undergone medical treatment to become a member of the opposite sex.”

Because the terminology is so diffuse, what someone is called may depend entirely on personal choice. Sensitivity is important, but so is accuracy: Using a term your audience understands may trump personal choice. Frequently, a description is better than a label: Saying “She was born male, but now lives as a female” might be better than calling her “transgendered.” It eliminates any possible misunderstanding and also allows the use of a female pronoun without further explanation. And sticking with the “gender” description avoids the question of whom she prefers to have sex with—unless it’s pertinent to the context, it’s no one’s business.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.