Dot Wordsworth

2021’s word of the year: ‘cis’

2021's word of the year: 'cis'
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The newspapers came out on Christmas Day in the middle of the 19th century and listed in columns of small type all the pantomimes for the next day. Among them in 1856 was Paul Pry on Horseback, or, Harlequin and the Magic Horse-shoe, a ‘grand comic equestrian pantomime’. For it was at Astley’s, which presented all its entertainments on horseback.

Since Astley’s, like many theatres, had burnt down on several occasions, it was bold to include in this panto a ‘Fire Horse’ and a ‘Chariot of Fire’. That year it survived the risk.

Astley’s Theatre stood at the south end of Westminster Bridge, opposite today’s modern part of St Thomas’ Hospital. It had stalls and three tiers of galleries round a circus ring 43ft in diameter (for the galloping horses), with a proscenium arch at one end with a raised stage. Pablo Fanque, the black rope-dancer and equestrian mentioned in Sgt. Pepper, performed there.

Astley’s had two policemen assigned to it in 1858, according to Julia Clara Byrne’s Undercurrents Overlooked (1860). The author was one of those Victorian women whose strength of character overcame the limitations placed on her sex. Social gatherings at her home embraced the singer Giulia Grisi, the eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton and Henry Edward Manning, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.

Her brother, Hans Busk, wrote the popular The Rifle and How to Use It, for from his years as an undergraduate he had promoted the rapidly growing movement of rifle volunteers, forerunners of the Territorial Army. They bought their own rifles, as the law permitted.

Anyway, his sister Julia’s Undercurrents Overlooked focused on the ills of workhouses and the plight of the homeless. She contrasted the perhaps rackety Astley’s two policemen with the one assigned to each of ‘the other Metropolitan theatres, cispontine and transpontine’. By transpontine she meant south of the river, assuming a viewpoint of London north of the Thames.

Trans- served as a prefix signifying the other side; cis- this side. These verbal elements had a long wait to be signed up for the culture wars over sex and gender. Today cis on its own is flung around among the combatants, often in a sneery way. Many non-combatants, meanwhile, are left mystified by what cis means. Might it be short for sister, they wonder, or be related to cissy?

It’s not related to cissy, which is an unsatisfactory way of spelling sissy (from sister). But since cis comes from the Latin preposition cis, ‘on this side’, it depends on where you are standing. In the 16th century cis-Alpine was a label of the Gallican ecclesiastical movement, looking at things from the French standpoint. Their opponents were the Ultramontanes, over the Alps in Rome. But in the next century Transalpine had two opposite senses: ‘over the Alps from Rome’, often conveying the meaning of ‘barbarous’, even among English writers; and ‘over the Alps from France’, as when that wicked political showman John Wikes wrote in 1765 from Naples, his fourth letter ‘since I have been transalpine’.

Ultra- found its own niche in English – ultraviolet, ultrasonic, even ultracrepidarian (for the critic who goes beyond his sphere of knowledge, like the shoemaker who criticised sandals painted by Apelles, then went beyond the footwear, earning the rebuke Ne supra crepidam judicaret, according to Pliny). So, with ultra otherwise occupied, the opposing terms are now cis and trans.

Cisgender has been with us from as long ago as 1997 (the year Diana, Princess of Wales, Jeffrey Bernard and Mother Teresa died, in separate incidents). It designates ‘a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds to his or her sex at birth’, says the Oxford English Dictionary, and transgender is defined by adjusting it to ‘does not correspond’.

I can’t help feeling that when I am referred to as a cis hetero woman, it is sometimes scornfully, as though I lacked the imagination to make up my mind to adopt a new gender and deny what my chromosomes proclaim. But many cis feminists resent their freedoms being invaded by cis men who now declare themselves trans women, which is to say women full stop.

Now I am off with Veronica’s children to the panto to see the ugly sisters (now called ‘wicked’, who are men) and Cinders (a woman) and Dandini (who could be either). This production also stars Sooty, who uses the pronoun ‘he’, though he doesn’t shout about it.