Why Latinx Can’t Catch On

New words stick when they come from below, and respond to a real need.

"Latinos for Trump" sign
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

About the author: John McWhorter is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He teaches linguistics at Columbia University, hosts the podcast Lexicon Valley, and is the author of the upcoming Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter Then, Now and Always.

Why hasn't the term Latinx caught on the way African American did in the late 1980s?

African American became a cherished replacement for black right around when Jesse Jackson embraced it at a news conference, in 1988. Latinx, fashioned to get past the gender distinction encoded in Latino and Latina, has not replicated that success since its introduction, in 2014. It has been celebrated by intellectuals, journalists, and university officials, and even used by Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. But in one poll, only 2 percent of America’s Latinos said they preferred the term.

The reason for the difference is familiar to linguists who study how languages change. Although it may seem that new elements of a language settle in when regular people imitate famous or prestigious people, more generally, new language comes from below. That is, tomorrow’s words and constructions are ones that even today feel not swanky but ordinary, like “us.” One used to say that a house “was building.” Being built began as a neologism associated with people of lesser education, but was eventually adopted by everyone else.

Although Jesse Jackson helped it along, African American came into vogue because it felt useful to a critical mass of black people. Black could be interpreted as a negative, sinister alternative to white. Plus, black, as the English-language successor to Negro—the Portuguese word for “black”—had been imposed from without, by slave masters. African American was created from within and worked as a linguistic cousin to the philosophical embrace of Africa as black America’s mother continent.

Latino was enthusiastically taken up as an alternative to Hispanic around the same time African American came into use; the newer term solved the problem created by the fact that Hispanic, which centers language, refers to Spanish-speakers and thus excludes people of Brazilian descent. Latinx, too, purports to solve a problem: that of implied gender. True, gender marking in language can affect thought. But that issue is largely discussed among the intelligentsia. If you ask the proverbial person on the street, you’ll find no gnawing concern about the bias encoded in gendered word endings.

To black people, African American felt like a response to discrimination from outsiders, something black people needed as an alternative to the loaded word black. The term serves as a proud statement to a racist society. To Latinos, Latinx may feel like an imposition by activists. It’s also too clever by half for Romance-language speakers accustomed to gendered nouns. (It bears mentioning, however, that African American never displaced black, and has always been treated as a somewhat formal term. “Say it out loud: I’m African American and I’m proud”—nah. These days, some younger people are advocating a return to black.)

The difference between African American and Latinx represents a pattern demonstrated endlessly in the past. Blackboard-grammar rules—fewer books rather than less books, when to use that instead of which, etc.—are imposed from on high. Few have actually transcended the status of grammar-pusses’ hobbyhorse and penetrated the way most English speakers at least try to speak and write. For example, the idea that one should use subject pronouns after andBilly and I went to the store rather than Billy and me went to the store—has a fragile reign at best. Most people break the rule ceaselessly in casual conversation, and many of those who think they don’t nevertheless say between you and I, which actually breaks the rule they are trying to observe, because I is not a subject in that phrase. The fact is that rendering pronouns as subjects after and when they come before verbs is a tic inculcated through schooling and shaming. There is a reason we can master intricate tasks like piano playing, card playing, and computer gaming more thoroughly than between you and me: They are us; they delight us from below, as it were.

Schoolmarms don’t make language. For all the fulminations about the singular they, for instance, English speakers have used it liberally for centuries, from Middle English on. It is quite ordinary for languages to have gender-neutral pronouns, and English-speakers felt natural recruiting they to serve that purpose. The idea that something that felt so ordinary was “wrong” was an imposition from on high that had little effect beyond what copy editors could get their pens on. Some used he/she; others laboriously alternated between he and she; but in speech especially, just as many relaxed and used they, and the world kept spinning.

Today, there is a new singular they that refers to specific people, as in “My girlfriend is sick, so they’re staying home.” This usage, favored as a linguistic reflection of gender fluidity, strikes many, especially people of a certain age, as faintly absurd. They see it as an imposition from above, or at least from without; they regard it as a mere fashion statement. But people way below that certain age are using the new singular they quite fluently. Chances are, it will truly catch on in the language, because for those embracing it, it comes from below, and feels natural and useful in a changing America.

Ms. caught on quickly: It responded to a genuine discomfort that legions of women felt in the absence of a marriage-neutral appellation and was buoyed by Gloria Steinem when she used it as the name of her popular magazine. Womyn for woman, however, never really got anywhere: that woman could be treated as implying that a woman is a kind of man concerned few women deeply, especially since the word is not pronounced “woe-man.” To change the spelling of a word so deeply ensconced was too tough a sell, and from above. Ms. felt right, from below.

Biracial was adopted quite readily about 20 years ago, and largely replaced the earlier term mixed, usually used in reference to people who are half white and half African American. This was in the wake of a general change in attitudes about multiracial heritage, and thus supported from below. Mixed had always felt a tad demeaning, implying a certain departure from normality, and had accreted an air of the “tragic mulatto” over the years. Biracial felt better—natural, the real “us”—to legions of people.

ADOS, for “American descendants of slavery,” is a different case. I suspect that this label—which seeks to delineate black people with a heritage in American slavery as a group with more of a claim on reparations and other resources than blacks born of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean—will have less traction than biracial. It draws a line between “native” and “immigrant” black people that relatively few black people will sense as necessary or even comfortable. Black people in America of any extraction tend to see themselves as united by similar concerns regarding, especially, identity and discrimination. ADOS feels less imposed from below than, perhaps, from the side.

Latinx may solve a problem, but it’s not a problem that people who are not academics or activists seem to find as urgent as they do. Now as always, imposing change on language is wickedly difficult from above, even change with wisdom in it.