May 26, 2022

Who started this use of "cis-" as the opposite of "trans-"? In English, it seems to be Thomas Jefferson!

I doubt if I am the first person to point this out, but I am arriving at this observation independently — independently, with access to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Latin root is clear — "cis" was the opposite of "trans" — notably used to refer to the landscape. You could refer to this side of the mountains — cis-montānus — or the other side of the mountains — beyond or across the mountains — trans-montānus.

The oldest recorded use in English is in Jefferson's 1785 "Notes on Virginian":
Before we condemn the Indians of this continent as wanting genius, we must consider that letters have not yet been introduced among them. Were we to compare them in their present state with the Europeans, North of the Alps, when the Roman arms and arts first crossed those mountains, the comparison would be unequal, because, at that time, those parts of Europe were swarming with numbers; because numbers produce emulation, and multiply the chances of improvement, and one improvement begets another. Yet I may safely ask, how many good poets, how many able mathematicians, how many great inventors in arts or sciences, had Europe, North of the Alps, then produced? And it was sixteen centuries after this before a Newton could be formed. I do not mean to deny, that there are varieties in the race of man, distinguished by their powers both of body and mind. I believe there are, as I see to be the case in the races of other animals. I only mean to suggest a doubt, whether the bulk and faculties of animals depend on the side of the Atlantic on which their food happens to grow, or which furnishes the elements of which they are compounded? Whether nature has enlisted herself as a Cis or Trans-Atlantic partisan? I am induced to suspect, there has been more eloquence than sound reasoning displayed in support of this theory; that it is one of those cases where the judgment has been seduced by a glowing pen: and whilst I render every tribute of honour and esteem to the celebrated zoologist, who has added, and is still adding, so many precious things to the treasures of science, I must doubt whether in this instance he has not cherished error also, by lending her for a moment his vivid imagination and bewitching language. 
So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side the Atlantic. Its application to the race of whites, transplanted from Europe, remained for the Abbé Raynal. On doit etre etonné (he says) que l’Amerique n’ait pas encore produit un bon poëte, un habile mathematicien, un homme de genie dans un seul art, ou une seule science.
I lifted the whole long passage from a Word Histories account that's not about "cis" at all, but "belittle." Did you notice belittle? Jefferson was mocked for that:
Belittle!—What an expression!—It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is, to guess at its meaning.—For shame, Mr. Jefferson!—Why, after trampling upon the honour of our country, and representing it as little better than a land of barbarism—why, we say, perpetually trample also upon the very grammar of our language, and make that appear as Gothic as, from your description, our manners are rude?—Freely, good sir, will we forgive all you attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character; but for the future, spare—O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!

47 comments:

Lurker21 said...

Latin was the original inspiration (Cisalpine Gaul), but the modern usage may have come from chemistry (cis–trans isomerism).

BTW, when did America stop bebigging Thomas Jefferson?

n.n said...

cis-

word-forming element meaning "on the near side of, on this side," from Latin preposition cis "on this side" (in reference to place or time), related to citra (adv.) "on this side," from PIE *ki-s, suffixed form of root *ko-, the stem of demonstrative pronoun meaning "this." Opposed to trans- or ultra-. Originally only of place, sometimes 19c. of time; 21c. of life situations (such as cis-gender, which is attested by 2011).

- etymonline.com

Trans- a process or state of... Semantic drift. Urbane linguistics. Trans-semantics.

Tom T. said...

The more common term, I think, was "ultramontane." That term also took on a religious meaning in northern Europe relating to the authority of the Pope, because he was on the other side of the Alps.

Lucien said...

Cromulent words like “belittle” embiggen us all.

khematite said...

Jefferson may have seemed to belittle American culture, but the town of Springfield should be credited with taking things in the opposite direction with its famous motto "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man."

https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-43298229

Mike of Snoqualmie said...

During the Civil War, the part of the Mississippi valley east of the river was known as the Cis-Mississippi area and the part west of the river as the Trans-Mississippi. Grant and Sherman fought most of their battles in the Cis-Mississippi. Grant moved south around Vicksburg on the west side of the river than crossed the Mississippi below Vicksburg.

rhhardin said...

Cis- isn't a combining form for English, which is why nobody's heard of it.

It means before, within (in time); on the near side of (space). The former is taken over in English by pre-. In Latin it only appears in cismontanus, that dwells on this side of the mountain, being more or less dominated in combining by cista- for box or chest, as in cistern.

Bart Hall said...

For me cis- and trans- will always refer to organic chemistry -- are the two items of interest on the same side of the carbon double-bond, or opposite side. Stereo-isomers. Same Latin meaning. Use of these prefixes in regard to sex seems both forced and rather silly.

Joe Smith said...

Well, the founding fathers did like to dress up and wear fabulous wigs...

readering said...

As a schoolboy I learned about Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul. Surely predates Jefferson.

Critter said...

The Romans referred to the part of northern Italian peninsula occupied by the Celts (Gauls) in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC as Cisalpine Gaul. So the use of cis and trans has been around a lot longer than Jefferson.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisalpine_Gaul

Critter said...

The Romans referred to the part of the northern Italian peninsula occupied by the Celts (Gauls) in 3rd and 4th century BC as Cisalpine Gaul. So use of cis and trans has been around for a long time.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisalpine_Gaul

What is interesting is the use of cis for gender on “this” side versus trans gender on the other side of the mountains.

Roger Sweeny said...

Cis- and trans- are common prefixes in chemistry. They refer to molecules that have the same atomic constituents but in a different shape. A cis- molecule might have 2 chlorines on the same side of a carbon double bond. The trans- version would have the chlorines on different sides. There are some nice diagrams here:

https://www.thoughtco.com/geometric-isomerism-cis-and-trans-608702

Greg The Class Traitor said...

cis and trans are used in chemistry. They're used in geography. They're used to mark a physical location

Using them with respect to human beings is entirely different.

And it's entirely ideological. Because to say that there a "cis women" and "trans women" is to say that there are no real "women".

Which means, BTW that there's no such thing as "women's rights". And that it's meaningless to talk about a "women's locker room" or "women's spa".

So, you do you. But I thought you were in favor of "women's rights".

Michael said...

Timeless: “I am induced to suspect, there has been more eloquence than sound reasoning displayed in support of this theory…”

Yancey Ward said...

I wouldn't have thought its use was that young in English. In chemistry, it is the outdated way of describing a kind of isomerism. Of course, prior to the late 18th century, chemists didn't really know much at all about molecular structure, so probably didn't need such distinctions.

dbp said...

I really only came across cis and trans when I learned organic chemistry: When you have a long chain of single bonded carbon atoms, each of the carbon atoms will have two hydrogen atoms attached on opposite sides. If a double bond is formed between two of the carbons, the carbons will each have only one hydrogen attached. These hydrogens can be on opposite sides of the chain, (trans) or on the same side, (cis).

This is where the terms, trans fat or trans fatty acids come from.

SDaly said...

I had always just assumed it came from the distinct Roman provinces of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul.

Transporting that into gender theory doesn't seem to make sense, though, and could be considered offensive on several basis. First, like "oriental" it takes its meaning from a singular "Roman-centric" vantage point "you are on our side of the mountains" vs. "you are on the other side of the mountains." Cis is the equivalent of "our side," trans- is "the other side."

Also, in an age where enforcing binaries is also verboten for the woke, nothing could be more reinforcing of binaries than the use of "cis" and "trans".

linsee said...

I'm familiar with "cisalpine," and the OED's note on new words, in refernce to transgender, says
"The prefix cis- derives from Latin, meaning ‘on this side of’, and often forms words in contrast to trans, especially with reference to geographic features (cisalpine/transalpine, cisatlantic/transatlantic, etc.)."
Note "often."

mikee said...

Thank you for a post on a pet peeve of mine. In the context of chemistry, cis indicates that two functional groups (substituents) are on the same side of a plane, generally a plane intersecting two carbon atoms, while trans conveys that the substituents are on opposing (transverse) sides. This is generally used in organic chemistry when discussing carbon to carbon double bonds, and the 4 functional groups attaching to the carbons.

This historical usage is exactly the opposite of that used by gender activists, which makes them seem at best unaware. If the chemical nomenclature was followed, cis should mean a male-male pairing, or female-female, and trans should mean a heterosexual pairing. But I am old and will not argue the point further, and will only laugh to myself when I encounter gender activists.

Blackbeard said...

The prefixes cis and trans are widely used in organic chemistry.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis%E2%80%93trans_isomerism

holdfast said...

Don’t you dare label me!

I’ll work out my own modifiers, thankyouverymuch.

And when I announce them, you better respect them or you’ll be de punched as a h8r and bigot.

rhhardin said...

Maybe the mountain connection is mons veneris.

Ann Althouse said...

"The Romans referred to the part of northern Italian peninsula occupied by the Celts (Gauls) in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC as Cisalpine Gaul. So the use of cis and trans has been around a lot longer than Jefferson."

That point is made in the post. Jefferson is the oldest use *in English* — as found by the OED. Obviously, Jefferson was adopting the Latin usage, but it became English when he used it.

Ann Althouse said...

"Cis- isn't a combining form for English, which is why nobody's heard of it."

If by "nobody" you mean no low-educated person.

Ann Althouse said...

"As a schoolboy I learned about Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul. Surely predates Jefferson."

How old are you? You don't pre-date Jefferson. My point is, Jefferson was first in the English language.

Ann Althouse said...

@mikee

You seem to be mixing up transgender and homosexual.

Transgender isn't about sexual orientation — who's having sex with who.

It's about the feelings of gender within one person. The "trans-" is the crossover from where your body is to where your mind is. Visualize the mind/body line and ask if the person is keeping mind and body on the same gender side, and that's cis. If you cross the line and have the mind and body on opposite sides, you're trans.

There's no sexual partner in the picture at all. It's just one person — being and feeling.

n.n said...

cis should mean a male-male pairing, or female-female, and trans should mean a heterosexual pairing

Trans relative to cis couplings, yes. However gender is sex-correlated attributes (e.g. sexual orientation). Trans is a state or process of divergence from normal, which includes gender chauvinistic ideologies (e.g. masculinism).

SDaly said...

"'trans' is the crossover from where your body is to where your mind is."

Very confused. Do men and women have different bodies?

Marc in Eugene said...

'Cis-' was in the air, so to speak, as Revolution reared its ugly head at the end of the 18th century, but that Thomas Jefferson is entitled to the laurel crown for a first use in English seems undebatable. I wonder if any of his biographers mention this?

The most amusing words in that OED entry, I think, are cis-bedpost and trans-bedpost. Miss Cornwallis from 1864:

Pray tell me about the trans-bedpost regions; my whole concern at present is the cis-bedpost-- a very narrow domain.

And if discussions of what stereotypically pertains to 'the region of the cis-bedpost' remained confined to that 'very narrow domain' public discourse would be all the better.

Smilin' Jack said...

Visualize the mind/body line and ask if the person is keeping mind and body on the same gender side, and that's cis. If you cross the line and have the mind and body on opposite sides, you're trans.

Hopelessly retrograde binary thinking. Nowadays we are no longer bound by the shackles of genetics, (which have been exposed as a mere tool of racist, patriarchal hegemony) and we see that sex and gender exist on a socially constructed continuum. There are no “lines”.

Christy said...

So, you are telling us that trans is the ultimate in "othering!"

Kevin said...

I don’t think this is correct about Jefferson’s usage in 1785 being the oldest in English. Gibbons used it in 1776. (Chapter 2 of Decline & Fall.) Given how many British boys had to read and memorize Caesar’s Gallic Wars as part of their education, I’d be surprised if this was the first use in English.

Tina848 said...

I am a chemist, Cis and Trans are 2 types of Isomers of Alkynes. Trans means the isomers are across the double bond from each other, Cis means they are adjacent to the double bond. I have always been confused why they are using scientific language.

Pettifogger said...

Interesting. So we can have cis-sanity and trans-sanity.

The Vault Dweller said...

The first time I heard the Cis-Trans dichotomy was in Organic chemistry. It had to to do with the orientation of hydrocarbons in relation two carbons bonded together with a double bond. The bulks of the molecule extending from either side of the double bond could either be pointing in the same direction, being a Cis molecule, or the could be pointing the opposite direction from the double bond and be a trans molecule. This is why trans-fats are called trans. Also, because this differentiation only occurs when the there is a double bonded carbon instead of all single bonded, by definition every trans-fat is also an unsaturated fat. After that the next time I heard a cis trans distinction was in relation to geography or anthropology. I suspect many people assume the trans in transgender is about transformation. And transforming from one gender to the next. But really it is more about the felt identity being on the opposite side of the actual gender identity.

Richard Fagin said...

I'm not able to attribute this remark, but it's appropriate with respect to the subject of "cis-" and "transgender", a young man responding to a question from his father about the subject of multiple genders: "Dad, there are only girls and guys, but there's a thousand ways to be queer."

J Melcher said...

Timeless:

“I am induced to suspect, there has been more eloquence than sound reasoning displayed in support of this theory…”

MANY, if not most, such theories.

rhhardin said...

"Cis- isn't a combining form for English, which is why nobody's heard of it."

If by "nobody" you mean no low-educated person.


My Random House College Dictionary lists cisalpine, cisatlantic, cislunar, cismontane, and cispadine (on the south side of the Po river). Not common words.

Trans- gets about 120 words, everyday ones, transact to transvestite.

mikee said...

Apparently it is true that the fastest way to find a correct answer on the internet is to submit an erroneous remark.

Thanks, Althouse, for explaining cis and trans gendering better than any activist I've ever heard. Now at last this usage makes some sense to me. Not a lot, but some. I should probably just be glad they didn't go with substituent orientations on a benzene ring instead, although ortho, meta, para and trans could cover more genders than cis and trans. Can we start using this instead, and call them all haters for not using it?

Ann Althouse said...

“ Not common words.”

The question was whether people have *heard* of something not whether it’s common. I’ve heard of lots of things that are not common. I’ve heard of an elephant flying.

Narayanan said...

for Jefferson does he tell us if cis meant Europe or trans? since he was on this NA continent

Lucien said...

Ann expresses an interesting interpretation of cis- and trans- gender humans. As I read it, she means cis-gendered people feel like the gender they actually are, and trans-gendered people feel like the gender they are not. If that’s right, I hold no brief against it.
The programme of the Woke, as I see it, is to get polite people to say that counterfeit men and women are real men and women, to avoid hurting feelings or “punching down”. Perhaps some will even come to believe it, as Winston Smith came to love Big Brother.
Those who refuse to play along are not hateful. They are being asked to erase the validity of their lived experience: namely that adult human males are men, and adult human females are women. They resist having these experiences colonized by those who would do emotional and psychological harm to them by forcing them to mouth orthodoxies they know are false.
There are four lights.

Rt41Rebel said...

What Bart Hall said, Cis/Trans Isomerism.

Tina Trent said...

The intellectual hijacking of the term "cis" to describe both gay and heterosexual people who felt "born in the right bodies to express their sexual urges" was enforced by the Judith Butler crowd taking over linguistics departments, because they were an easy kill in the mid-80s for lack of student interest. There's irony in this, but it's boring irony.

"Cis" was redefined very bureaucratically to be a slur against heterosexuals, redesigned explicitly to "destabilize" or "deconstruct" heterosexual identity. There are thousands of bad essays about this, if you care to look. It is not ambiguous.

Now, a few decades later, it is required speech enforced in the training of doctors, the treatment of patients, government documents, public schools, psychiatric practitioners, and especially the efforts of modestly serious academic and legal feminists and any other sane people to define the experiences of half the human race.

It's cute that the current OED might have older irrelevant definitions -- if you are actually using the current one.

By the next OED, it will be forbidden to not weave Butler et.al. into the historical usages relating to things entirely different, such as geographical zoning. Accurate, but forbidden. So cart before horse will win, as the OED joins countless other cultural institutions throwing away their purpose and integrity. There will be no mention of the historical weaponization of the term.

First they came for the lesbians, but I said nothing because I was not a lesbian...

Rich Rostrom said...

My first encounter with these terms was "Cisleithania" and "Transleithania", which referred to the division of the Austrian Empire at the Leitha River. "Transleithania" was the Kingdom of Hungary, which from 1867 was a separate state with its own parliament. "Cisleithania" was Austria and the associated Habsburg dominions in Italy, Germany, and Poland.

"Cis-" and "Trans-" derived from the positions relative to Vienna.

rcommal said...

While I do, still, admire and appreciate Thomas Jefferson’s communication skills,I stopped admiring him decades ago. Hubris and hypocrisy marked that man. I am so grateful for his contributions to the founding of what led to the United States of America. That said, he was, as an individual, a despicable, vain, and fundamentally dishonest man.