A Nomenclatura of Life

By on .

Or, How we learn about ourselves from the names we are given by others

“All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name” ~ Andre Breton

Words fascinate me. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Language fascinates me, which isn’t quite the same thing. I was born in Oxford, that city of Dreaming Spires so eloquently described by Matthew Arnold in his elegiac poem, Thyrsis. You can still see Arnold’s beautiful city from high up on Boar’s Hill, but stand on the corner of Carfax for more than a few minutes, amongst the noise and fumes of the buses and coaches in that city of academe, you might be tempted to exercise more Anglo-Saxon vocabulary in the cacophony.

There are many theories about why human beings have succeeded in dominating the planet. Opposable thumbs is one, communication is another. Many species communicate between themselves and each other, but human beings have taken language to an entirely different level of sophistication. We use words, and language, to describe everything we do, see, imagine, know and believe, and in doing so we have learned that words have power.

It’s a mistake to believe that words, and the language that utilizes them, remain constant. They do not. I am constructing this essay in English, that most global of languages. It is the language of my birth, and the one I can command with the greatest ease. German may be the language of technical excellence, and French the mellifluous language of love. English is … ubiquitous.

Ubiquitous, but not unchanging.

The epic poem Beowolf was written in a form of English that only scholars would recognise today. An oft repeated joke when I went to college was that Oxford regarded anything written after Beowolf as modern history. It was an exaggeration of course, and much has changed since then, but not as much as you’d imagine.

The passage of time distorts perspective, and the ease with which we can access texts by Virgil, Blake and Coleridge shrouds the context in which these texts were originally set. Reading these works today leaves us open to the danger of extracting meanings, and interpretations of people and events that are alien to the world from which they were drawn.

William Blake wrote Jerusalem in 1808. It is a poem that summons an image of a new Jerusalem being founded in the green and pleasant land of England, by comparing to the reality of the choking “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. The England of 1808 was heavily involved in the Napoleonic Wars. The Bastille had been stormed just 19 years earlier, in 1789. Blake wrote sympathetically about the events that led to the French Revolution, and was hounded in society for doing so. Europe was in tumult, as was Blake, surrounded by financial worries and hounded by a patron who did not appreciate his work.

Little known when first written, Jerusalem found its moment a century later, when set to music by Hubert Parry in the depths of WW1, as morale faltered in the face of industrial scale carnage on Flander’s Fields. At the same time the suffragettes adopted it as a song of defiance, in their struggle to gain universal suffrage. The Women’s Institute grew out of the Women’s Suffrage movement of the era and owes it’s foundation, in part, to Grace Hadow. The W.I. is a formidable organisation, but it is hardly renowned as a hotbed of revolutionary zeal these days, although they famously slow hand clapped a British Prime Minister to show their disapproval. The W.I. have sung Jerusalem at their annual meetings since it’s adoption in 1918.

The language that shapes thought, and understanding of what we know about ourselves is nowhere more evident than in the life-defining arena of medicine. Owing it’s foundation to Latin scholars and the ancients, medical language veils it’s authority in words of technical complexity and arcane meaning. Where street argot is made and re-made in the blink of a txt. msg., medical language is unyielding and glacial-slow in acknowledging change. Our being was defined, and consolidated in words, during the era that gave us Blake’s Jerusalem and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and remains freighted with the inferences familiar to different eras, but alien to our own.

You may think that is specious nonsense. But it’s not so straightforward as many assume. Try this.

Define what you understand by the word woman.

I’ll give you this from Merriam-Webster: an adult female human being.

So now we have, female. And female is?

Merriam-Webster again: of, or relating to, the sex that bears young or produces eggs. You can do the exact same exercise with the word man.

And that’s where it all breaks down. It’s a very narrow, traditional explanation of a woman. It isn’t the whole story, and it doesn’t come close to explaining the myriad variations that go to make up the rich diversity of humankind. It’s the authorised version that we are given as we grow up. A woman is presumed to have XX chromosomes, but some have XY chromosomes. Society believes that all women have a uterus, ovaries and a vagina. Well, some have a vagina, but no internal, reproductive architecture. Some have no vagina.

And that’s before we ever start talking about the clitoris. There is no standard issue size for an adult woman’s clit, it’s just presumed to be “pea-like”. Infants have their clitoris surgically refashioned because they’re supposed to be small.

Surgery isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, believe me. Many had their clitoris removed entirely in a medical paradigm that became known as optimal gender enforcement. It was easier, and clinicians thought it made no difference anyway. Orgasms were vaginal, so the thinking went. Penetrative sex is all. It didn’t trouble anyone to wonder what the corollary of clitoral surgery would be, if the recipient didn’t have a vagina to begin with, and the subsequent surgery was so poorly executed as to amount to mutilation.

Medical authority drew the lines in the sand and defined what woman and man should be, and nothing, but nothing was permitted to question that. Never mind that simply by existing I refute the foundations of that binary definition of the human race.

That made me the transgressor, and whether I knew it or not, and I didn’t, because I was an infant, I was affronting other’s values.

“As a kid you get to the stage where you realise the gender barriers that exist in society, and what you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do.” ~ Andreja Pejic

The ancients I referred to earlier have a lot to answer for when it comes to medicine, if they only knew it.

Despite being written over 2,000 years ago, Ovid’s Metamorphoses became the source material for medical authority in the 19th century when it searched for definitions to describe people who those medics decided could not be properly explained by the binary definitions.

Hermaphroditus was a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Born as the son of Aphrodite and Hermes, he was beautiful in a way that only the god’s can provide. The way Ovid tells the tale, Salmacis pursues Hermaphroditus and “becomes one” with him. Traditionally interpreted as a tale of sex and androgeny, it gave medicine the word hermaphrodite to describe individuals whose physical anatomy did not conform to the norm.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have a very clear understanding of what the term “becomes one” means when describing what people get up to with each other, and it definitely includes lots of sex.

Ovid made myth the dominant subject of his poems. However, he didn’t use the form for moral reflection or insight, as earlier poetry forms had done, he made it the object of manipulation and playfulness. Many scholars now believe he invented the version of Hermaphroditus and Salamacis that we know today.

He made it up.

In those ancient times stories were told as allegories. We read them as literal. Between the two is a gulf of misunderstanding through which legions have been stigmatized and traumatized for the sake of the greater good. There were undoubtedly people in ancient times whose bodily anatomy differed from the expected. The myths are the vehicle that attempt to explain their presence in society.

We are the gift of the gods. I certainly prefer that to what we endure today.

There is another version of the Hermaphoditus and Salamacis story. It’s told by Vitruvius, so it is contemporaneous to Ovid. This version tells another, more human story, and deserves to be read in full:


“There is a mistaken idea that this spring infects those who drink of it with an unnatural lewdness. It will not be out of place to explain how this idea came to spread throughout the world from a mistake in the telling of the tale. It cannot be that the water makes men effeminate and unchaste, as it is said to do; for the spring is of remarkable clearness and excellent in flavour. The fact is that when Melas and Arevanias came there from Argos and Troezen and founded a colony together, they drove out the Carians and Lelegans who were barbarians. These took refuge in the mountains, and, uniting there, used to make raids, plundering the Greeks and laying their country waste in a cruel manner.

Later, one of the colonists, to make money, set up a well-stocked shop, near the spring because the water was so good, and the way in which he carried it on attracted the barbarians.

So they began to come down, one at a time, and to meet with society, and thus they were brought back of their own accord, giving up their rough and savage ways for the delights of Greek customs. Hence this water acquired its peculiar reputation, not because it really induced unchastity, but because those barbarians were softened by the charm of civilization.”

The world we know is made from the stories we tell each other. The words we exchange, and the names we call one another. The names we are given and known by. A mistake made in the telling changes the story. You might say it does not matter. Maybe not to you, but to me and others like me it did, and it still does.

Variations of the term hermaphrodite were used by medics for over 100 years, and was only overcome by the courageous advocacy of affected adults and their allies, beginning in the 1990’s. The term still crops up in current publications however, witness a page explaining the new website EuroPSI.org, that introduces readers to DSD/intersex, by referring to ‘hermaphroditism.’

The term pseudo-hermaphrodite litters my fragmentary medical records. Not nice. For the avoidance of official misunderstanding I was designated female, and then surgically refashioned accordingly. Repeatedly. Catastrophically.

That does not a female make.

I am intersex, a word first coined by Richard Goldschmidt in 1917, and almost universally reviled by parents everywhere, ever since. Medics still use the term between each other, but not to parents. But there’s been an awful lot that clinicians in intersex medicine have with-held and concealed from parents, and wider society during the past decades. Since 2005 there has been a new term to describe us, to replace the hated herm-word: Disorders of Sex DevelopmentDSD.

DSD. This acronym is the invention of others. It is a continuation of the same story, with different words and names.

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender ….. identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be it’s results.”  ~ Judith Butler.

Words change, but if the deeds do not, what difference does it make? These names and terms are laid on us as signifiers. They are presumed to define our being, and yet at the same time our difference is denied as relevant to our being. To grow up in the Kafaka-esque world of intersex medicine, without ever having the right to voice my own hopes and wishes was to inhabit a nightmare without end.

Marginalized groups bear the burden of other’s prejudice and misunderstanding. People born intersex are invisible in society, unless they out themselves. Many internalize that prejudice and lives are blighted by trauma and self-loathing. Not for what they are, but for what they learn that other’s think they are.

Human history and the stories it tells are full of tales about the marginalized overcoming their diminished place in society. It follows a pattern, but always involves struggle for affirmation before acceptance. Women’s emancipation, the struggle for freedom from slavery, disability right’s affirmation, marriage equality. The stories echo each other in their symmetry. In the realm of intersex medicine the concept that we are all autonomous individuals is not a familiar one. We are viewed through a different lens when we are born.

This essay is not about me.

I broke the bounds of my containment a long time ago. I am bloodied, but unbowed. I write my stories as a mirror to hold up to the world. A world that expends enormous efforts pruriently gazing at our differences, as it did to me when I was younger. A world that fails to ask itself if it ever has the right to do what it does to us, without our consent. A world that insisted that I had to be changed, with a scalpel, all the better that I could lead a normal life. A kind of normality I do not recognise.

This essay is about you.

It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, and whose version of those tales we accept as the authorised one, and why. It is about the words, and language we use with each other. It is about how those words wound and scar, without mark.

It is about how words separate and marginalise anyone who does not conform, simply because they exist in defiance of the rules. Rules which tell us that there are two, and only two variants of human being. It is about what the term “the greater good” actually means. It is about what happens when difference becomes carelessly interchangeable with disorder, and what happens to people who are caught in that net and given those labels. It is about knowledge, understanding, empathy, and change.

It is about overcoming prejudice and misunderstanding, and giving everyone the right to choose the trajectory of their own lives. It is about breaking the bounds of fear and stigma, and celebrating the amazing diversity and variation of the human condition as just that. A part of what it is to be human.

L J. 2014


Nomenclatura: Latin – list of names

Andre Breton:19 February 1896 – 28 September 1966. A French writer and poet. He is known best as the founder of Surrealism.

Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold. 1865 A lament for the life of Arthur Hugh Clough Beowolf in Anglo-Saxon: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/asbeo.htm

Beowolf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm

The W.I. and Jerusalem: http://janerobinsonauthor.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/ jerusalem-and-the-womens-institute/

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915


Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tr. Anthon S. Kline: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/ Ovhome.htm

Vitruvius on Salamancis’ fountain: Vitruvius Pollio, The Ten Books on Architecture. Morris Hicky Morgan, Ed. 2.8.12. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Female genital appearance: ‘normality’ unfolds: Lloyd, Crouch, Minto, Liao, Creighton:BJOG: an International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology: May 2005, Vol. 112, pp. 643–646

Anatomy of the Clitoris: Helen E. O’Connell, Kalavampara V. Sanjeevan and John M. Hutson:The Journal of Urology:Vol. 174, 1189–1195, October 2005

Childhood surgery for ambiguous genitalia: glimpses of practice changes or more of the same? Sarah M. Creighton, Lina Michala, Imran Mushtaq & Michal Yaron: Psychology & Sexuality: 2013

The power in a name: diagnostic terminology and diverse experiences Georgiann Davis: Psychology & Sexuality: 2013