Beyond Etymology: Effeminacy, Queerness and the Power of Words

Effeminate, as we know, is the male form of feminine; femininity divorced from femaleness. Perhaps to equate femininity and effeminacy is going too far, though. It is part of our gender revolution to encourage the re-mystification, the re-enchantment of language. A word means what it is, a feeling, an uncapturable thing. Instead of naming our town Riverside, we name it Klatsand, and we only know that it is named that way because it is Klatsland. Instead of naming her woman, wife of man, she names herself womyn, which means womyn. Instead of describing what effeminacy means, I invite you to live your life, constructing your own meaning, which is indescribable except maybe in poetry.

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.

Regardless, 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.

Photos from top: zeraph (2005); Manic Street Preachers


  1. I love your discussion. I would only add that the "-ate" ending of "effeminate" comes from the Latin word for action, and the "ef-" prefix means "out" (or it can mean "completely"), so etymologically speaking the word means something like "acting out of femininity" or "acting completely feminine."

    Perhaps the "out" part means, as it means to so many gay people, "to be public."


Post a Comment

Popular Posts