Spread of "inclusive x"

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Merriam-Webster's online dictionary entry for folx defines it as a re-spelling of folks "used especially to explicitly signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized".

The etymology is given as "respelling of folks, with x after MX.LATINX".

The entry also notes that the first known occurrence was in 1833, without clarifying that older uses (and many recent ones) are examples of eye dialect rather than inclusionary reference.

Obviously Latinx (like Filipinx and …) was created as a gender-neutral version of Latina/Latino, and Mx. is a gender-neutral version of Mr./Ms. In both of those cases, the 'x' substitutes for other gender-associated letters, whereas in folx the 'x' has been generalized to mean something like "inclusion of whatever kind" — though the 'x' still has its usual /ks/ pronunciation. In another example, namely womxn, "inclusive x" becomes even more abstract. On that model, any word could be orthographically transformed.

All of these re-spellings are controversial. Some negative reactions come from linguistic conservatives, and some from the "anti-woke" folx. But there are also objections from the other side, such as the complaint that Latinx is "an example of linguistic colonialism — U.S. speakers of English trying to impose new norms on another community" (quotation from this article). Some people prefer Latine.

And Kells McPhillips ("What You Need To Know About the Letter ‘X’ in Words Like Folx, Womxn, and Latinx", Well+Good 8/31/2020) reports an informal Instagram survey by Nina Kossoff, which registered a variety of negative reactions to womxn:

Kossoff reports that in terms of the survey findings, "womxn" was, by far, the most contentious use of the letter "x," with more than 70 people responding to that particular question sticker—largely in the negative. Thirty of these respondents felt "womxn" acted as a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) term, which describes feminists who purposefully exclude—and often actively other and oppress—trans women. "Nearly as strong was the sentiment that, in its effort to be inclusive of genders beyond cisgender women, the term 'womxn' left many community members feeling as though their trans and/or non-binary identities were being erased, or lumped in with their assigned gender at birth."

Many responders also felt "womxn" gave off the idea of being a "woman-lite," meaning "an individual's assigned gender at birth still dictated the spaces they are seen and recognized in," says Kossoff. "This is detrimental for those who don't wish to be associated with wom(e/x/a)nhood in any way."

Overall, the future of "inclusive x" seems to be uncertain. In particular, Folx is used in the name of the start-up FOLX HEALTH, which has been in the news recently.  If that company is broadly successful, it might make generic use of the word less common.

In another direction, there's been no English-writing uptake of the French écriture inclusive "middle dot", as far as I know — presumably because English lacks any systematic equivalent of French gender-marking morphology.



  1. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 8:49 am

    I'd be interested in hearing more about how this kind of thing is seen as linguistic imperialism when done in other languages. Thanks for the link!

    I tend to agree; or at least, I see it as lazy (or even thoughtless) copying of solutions that are invented on the basis of an English linguistic foundation. For example, the whole pronouns thing is close to meaningless in a pro-drop language like my own L1, while the fixation on feminatives, in turn, may be borrowed from German. In the reality of Slavic, gender-non-neutral usage is most visible in concord, and in particular gender-marked verb forms are a difficult case. And they tend to fly under the radar even the most liberal-minded linguists around here…

  2. Joe said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 10:14 am

    Regarding linguistic colonialism, I've been told (by a non-US Latino who hates it) that "Latinx" is promoted mainly by US-raised people who have Latin American heritage, but don't speak Spanish regularly enough (or well enough) to know that "Latinx" doesn't work very well in that language. If so, it's actually English speakers imposing new norms on their own community, though maybe still without recognizing the views of other members of that community.

    Who are the groups who feel freshly included in "womxn" and "folx"?

  3. Mike Grubb said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 10:50 am

    This was the first I've seen of "womxn", and I had no idea how to "say it in my head" when I read it. Apparently, according to Julien Miquel, the altered spelling doesn't affect pronunciation. (Of course, whether a YouTuber's guidance can be considered definitive is certainly debatable.) That would make this use of the inclusive "x" different from "Latinx" and "Mx.", which are aurally apparent, and "folx", which is homophonous with "folks". It also differs from the others as an infix instead of being word-final. These might be contributing factors in the word's lack of positive reception.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 11:01 am

    The linked piece claims without citation that the relevant usage of "folx" dates to the '90's and in particular predates "Latinx" rather than following it. I'd be interested in seeing a good lexicographic exploration of origins and original context(s). It sort of feels like it could have been an inside joke that somehow lost (at least for some) its jocular flavor over time.

    I'd also be interested in knowing if anyone has yet reverse-engineered a thesis (presumably involving "folk etymology" …) about *why* the usual -ks spelling of "folks" somehow signals lack of inclusiveness.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 11:48 am

    Mike — “ "folx", which is homophonous with "folks" ” — not in my idiolect. The latter, being well established and attested, I follow the LPD and render as /fəʊks/; the former, being previously unknown to me, I have no option but to take the spelling as indicative of pronunciation, whence / fɒlks/.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 12:40 pm

    I tend to agree with J.W. that "folx" seems more of a piece with "doodz", "peeps", "haxorz", and the like than with "Mx" or "Latinx".

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 1:13 pm

    To be clear, I'm not doubting that some non-zero number of people as of 2023 use the "folx" spelling as a self-conscious marker of what they consider "inclusivity." I just don't know how that usage evolved and whether it started off as a self-consciously virtuous innovation or was something else that then somehow drifted, in some relevant subculture(s), into the usage under discussion.

    As to "womxn," there were as far back as the Seventies a number of alternative spellings for "woman/women" floating around, some earnestly proposed by certain feminists and probably others originating as jokes/parodies of that sort of feminist. I don't know what sort of market share "womxn" had compared to rival proposals. That could be an interesting investigation but whether enough of the sort of writings in which these alternatives tended to appear have been digitized to allow good corpus linguistics is not clear to me.

  8. paul garrett said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 3:56 pm

    The "womxn" was new to me, and I've never been a big fan of "Latinx", since I did suspect it of being quite a bit of a colonialization of Spanish by English speakers…

    But, frivolously, instead of "mxn" and "womxn", how about just "xmen"!?! :)

  9. Dara Connolly said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 5:52 pm

    Philip Taylor, I agree that "folks" and "folx" would not be homophonous for me. I have noticed however that there are some native speakers of English who do pronounce the "l" in "folks". I regularly listen to, and highly recommend, a science podcast called "-ologies". The presenter, Alie Ward, who is a wonderfully entertaining science communicator, consistently pronounces "folks" as /fɔlks/.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 8:40 pm

    Wikipedia attributes the popularization of "womyn" to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, est. 1976. The Google books corpus has bona fide hits for "womyn" starting around the same time, plus one that suggests it was a variant spelling back in the 16th century when the political currents were somewhat different.

    By contrast, on a quick skim pretty much all 20th century hits for "womxn" look like OCR errors. I would be interested in seeing some quotations that substantiate the claim that it was extant in the '70's, and especially any evidence that it was in some degree of continuous use in some circles rather than for example being a nonce coinage that popped up independently on multiple occasions.

    The MWMF eventually foundered about a decade ago over what wikipedia refers to as the "Exclusion controversy," which presumably would have been labeled something else by those who were on the losing side. But that is consistent with the notion that "womyn" might have by the 21st century taken on factional connotations that made it problematic in some relevant circles, motivating the felt need for an alternative. See also the wiki article on "Womyn-born womyn." But this tends to heighten suspicion that "womxn" may be a comparatively recent competitor in search of an invented genealogy that makes it seem older than it perhaps actually is. Also note what's missing from the book title in this sentence: "In 1981 she [Julie McCrossin] published _Women, wimmin, womyn, womin, whippets-On Lesbian Separatism_, a critique of some aspects of the feminist separatist movement of the day from an anarcho-feminist perspective."

  11. Sven said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 2:53 am

    It may be a coincidence, but I encountered the term "Volxküche" at least since the 90s in Germany in radical left political contexts. It is an alternative spelling for "Volksküche", "peoples kitchen", meaning free or cheap food provided at some kind of political gathering. Wikipedia has an entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volxkuche.
    At the time I did not think much about the meaning behind it, I assumed they wanted to distance themselves from mainstream use of "Volk" (people) in noun compounds. Both Nazi-Germany and the communist East Germany liked to use compounds using "Volk".
    This construction in german only works in compound nouns, since the "s" in "Volks" (where "ks" could be replaced by "x") is only present when "Volk" is used as part of a compound noun.

  12. Emil said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 3:17 am

    To me womxn reads the same as wom*n would, turning it into some sort of dirty word.

  13. Jim said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 3:48 pm

    I have seen "folx" used a number of times in the LGBTQ+ community in the past few years, always as virtue signalling — "Look at me, being all inclusive and shit", as though changing two letters indicates "work" has been done.

  14. Anthony said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 9:33 pm

    To me wom*n just looks ambiguous between singular and plural, not that I can imagine where it would be used.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 8:48 am

    Anthony — "wom*n just looks ambiguous between singular and plural" — not to me, because it lacks the second syllable "e" necessary to trigger the mapping of the first syllable "o" to /ɪ/. Lacking the "e", the "o" is mapped to /ʊ/ in my mind.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 12:45 am

    I remember seeing womyn and wimmin but have never seen womxn.

    My understanding is that Latinx came out of the Latin trans/non-binary community (the Wikipedia article on Latinx cites various sources implying it arose from the community rather than being imposed from white academia). Latinx would be an English term, while Latine with an e would be the Spanish-language equivalent. It would be nice if e could be a generic Spanish non-gendered singular noun ending (with es for plural) but I believe there are exsiting both male and female nouns ending in e which would block that for those nouns.

    I believe a similar controversy is going on in the Esperanto community, given how sacred Zamenhoff's rules are considered. Wikipedia has an entry on the non-gendered neo-Esperanto pronoun Ri and one on Gender reform in Esperanto.

  17. Kim said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 9:56 pm

    How I saw it going down was that "womxn" grew up on social media very recently (Tumblr, I think, but I'm not sure), explicitly as a trans-inclusive or -centered rebuttal to "womyn" — which, for what it's worth I haven't seen used by feminists in a non-self-mocking sense in decades. It wasn't taken up as much as hoped, and wasn't as well-received as hoped, and quickly it started to be denounced as an invention OF the same radical feminists, TERFs, etc. that it, in fact, was created to rebuff.

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