Would you Adam and Eve it? (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

April 14, 2023   5 mins

Last weekend brought surprising news: an unprecedented spike in the number of West Ham fans identifying as trans. According to the 2021 Census, the London borough of Newham has the highest proportion of trans people in England and Wales, coming in at a staggering 1.5%. Meanwhile, the “trans-friendly” city of Brighton and Hove languishes in the rankings at a lowly 20th, a bit like the UK at Eurovision.

Marvellous as it is to imagine the Cockney heartlands full of Paris Is Burning re-enactments, a more plausible explanation is that many of those Newhamites answering “yes” to the trans question didn’t understand what they were saying. Newham, after all, has relatively high numbers of immigrants and non-English speakers; and as an investigation by academic Michael Biggs has revealed, the strongest predictor of trans identification within a local authority is the proportion of people whose main language is not English. Once this was pointed out, the Office for National Statistics acknowledged it was “possible” that respondents misinterpreted the question, and confirmed it would investigate the findings.

On reflection, such confusion was easily predictable — and not just for non-native speakers. The Census asked: “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” Even assuming you successfully parsed its off-putting syntax, a number of serious ambiguities remain.

Is a “gender” a grammatical category, a synonym for maleness or femaleness, a set of sociocultural meanings, or a psychological identity? According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, it could be any of these. So, whether or not you “identify with” a gender (or, even more clumsily, have a “gender you identify with”) will partly depend on what you think “gender” is. It also partly depends upon what you think “to identify with” means, since this is hardly an everyday term. And then there’s the awkward fact that, if you are an immigrant without a birth certificate, you may not take yourself to have a “sex registered at birth” at all.

One might ask why the statisticians at the ONS got this so wrong, given that one of their main jobs is to design survey questions that don’t invite false positives. By the ONS’s own admission, the trans question was trialled by means of “community testing at LGBT History Month events”, which is a bit like gauging atheists’ understanding of the Catholic Mass by means of community testing at the Vatican. Why didn’t those in charge anticipate that a question couched in obscure genderese might stump noninitiates, even if it would please their Stonewall overlords?

The most obvious hypothesis would be that the ONS was cajoled, guilt-tripped, befuddled and emotionally blackmailed into linguistic compliance, like many a fellow national institution before it. Maybe so, but a wider explanation is also available: that those who designed the question didn’t even realise it was couched in obscure genderese. They took their own standards of linguistic apprehension to be universal and binding.

This is a tendency that extends well beyond transactivism. Word choices can have many functions apart from direct communication, and an obvious one is to convey the status of the speaker or author. Now that many of us spend our days sitting around scrolling emails and timelines, reading snippets and writing things with our thumbs, word choices are one of the main opportunities to socially signal. Slang, jargon, abbreviations and buzzwords are all ways to imply that you’re in a particular crowd.

Belonging also requires knowing what words not to use. As social animals, we can’t help but practise what linguistics expert Deborah Cameron calls “verbal hygiene”: trying to purify language of socially problematic word choices. If you’re a well-off Tory, you’ll want to avoid terms such as “toilet”, “lounge” and “settee”. If you’re a well-off Lefty, you’ll want to avoid phrases such as “ladies and gentlemen”, “cancel culture” and “lab leak”. The Right dislikes grammatical solecisms, especially when committed by Angela Rayner; the Left is much more concerned with moral solecisms. Either way, though, it’s at least partly a way of indicating who’s in and who’s out.

Many of us practise verbal hygiene simply in order to have an easier life. Some enjoy throwing the rulebook at others as a means of social control. Still more hubristic individuals — usually with PhDs — try to rewrite the rules altogether, inventing new lexical standards out of the blue and then associating any deviance from them with a suspect character. In certain circles, serious disagreement about meaning is cast as linguistic violence, and semantic power grabs are attributed to everyone but oneself. They want to “create divides” ,“police” categories and “colonise” minds and vocabularies. We are simply building a better world from our book-lined offices, one enforced redefinition at a time.

Whatever their provenance, knowing the speech codes for your own social group is consistent with relaxing them for others. It is possible and indeed desirable to understand that not every deviation from a group norm is a deliberate rule break; that sometimes people just aren’t familiar with the rules in the first place. Children and pensioners should get leeway for most forms of expression; either it’s too early for them or too late. Sometimes a white person will say “some of my best friends are black” simply because some of her best friends are black. She isn’t automatically to know that some count it as a racist dog whistle. And sometimes a man will enthuse innocently about feminist causes on behalf of his “wife and daughters” without realising his supposedly terrible anti-feminist error. He just means it.

Familiarity with your own group’s linguistic rules is also consistent with recognising that observance is a poor general guide to much else about a person. Manipulative types will mould their language in ways that invite confidence and disguise true motives. History is littered with gullible upper-class people, lured into handing over their assets to con artists who can accurately state the difference between “less” and “fewer”. The gunman who killed five people in Louisville last week was reported as having listed his pronouns on LinkedIn.

Trouble also arises when you’re an unreflective type who only ever encounters people in your own tribe, and who takes your intuitions about verbal hygiene to determine everyone else’s impurity. In institutions dominated by those of a certain age, income bracket, political sensibility or educational background, this is a real risk. Exacerbating this risk is the widespread reduction in meeting others face-to-face at work and in socialising outside of the office, both of which remove valuable opportunities to get to know human nature in the wild. If life is a series of highly straitened, professionalised encounters with people like yourself — if, say, you never meet a working-class person who you aren’t paying for something — it’s no wonder that failures of imagination occur about what others might be saying or hearing, by way of the very same words.

At worst, this myopia can lead to serious miscarriages of justice, especially when the semantically short-sighted have influence on the judicial system. This week also brought news of Christopher Mitchell, a welder from Caister-on-Sea convicted of aggravated “hate crimes” for making statements critical of a Drag Queen Story Hour event at a local library. For writing in a Facebook post that the drag queen in question was “grooming children” and that the parents of attendees “clearly have serious issues and should have their devices checked”, Mitchell received a 12-month community order including 20 rehabilitation days, 150 hours’ unpaid work, and a fine of £1,500. To anyone not already mired in rainbow-sanctioned speech codes — according to which the word “grooming” must never be applied to brave and stunning LGBT+ folk — this looks like a serious overreaction to the exercise of free speech.

But if fear of harming others doesn’t lead to more circumspection in interpreting others by one’s own lights, then perhaps the fear of harming personal reputations will. Mindlessly following unacknowledged tribal speech codes can result in extremely lazy thinking. Those responsible for the Census debacle at the ONS now look ridiculous; as does the BBC reporter who interviewed Elon Musk on Wednesday, so sure of received wisdom that Twitter is awash with hate speech that he hadn’t bothered to memorise any examples before confronting Musk about it. In a similar vein, the FBI were also made to look daft this week, when FOIs revealed they rather histrionically had classified common internet slang such as “redpilled” or “based” as indicative of “violent extremism” linked to the incel movement.

But when it comes to second-hand embarrassment, perhaps nothing tops Stonewall CEO and self-described “data geek” Nancy Kelley, cheerfully tweeting on Census publication day about how happy she was that her manor in Newham was so full of trans people. As Kelley’s fellow Newhamites might put it, it’s amazing what confirmation bias can make you Adam and Eve.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.