If I want to distinguish social (or linguistic) gender and biological sex in a text, is there any polar pair of terms that clearly refers to organisms with a specific sex and not (also) to persons with a specific gender role?

This is my perception of some (more or less popular) pairs:

  • man/woman – ambiguous
  • boy/girl – gender
  • gent(leman)/lady – gender
  • sir/ma(da)m – gender
  • Mr/M(r)s… – gender
  • dom/sub – gender
  • butch/femme – gender
  • bro/sis – gender
  • lad/lass – gender

  • masculine/feminine – gender

  • male/female – sex, but hardly used seriously as nouns for humans

I am aware that both, sex and gender, are spectrums and those terms are just designating opposite ends thereof.

I am not sure whether the following (mostly informal) terms are sex and gender neutral nor whether they have antonyms.

  • probably +masculine, perhaps +neutral
    • bloke
    • chap
    • skate
    • chum
    • bud(dy)
    • pal
    • mate
    • dude
  • +masculine +female
    • gamine
    • meg
    • romp
    • hoyden
  • +feminine
    • damsel
    • maid
  • I don't claim to be au fait with the niceties of modern gender politics, but to me it seems obvious that man/woman, boy/girl, brother/sister, lad/lass at least, refer to biological sex. I'm not sure what you mean by the plus sign, but gamine means an attractively boyish young woman and hoyden a boisterous girl. The French word gamin (m) means a street child. Man is the counterpart to maid when it's used in the sense of female (maidservant) rather than virgin. Oct 26 '19 at 12:25
  • 1
    I thought that dom/sub were related to the role, not the gender. So they could be the same or different gender. Oct 26 '19 at 18:18

Standard usage in the English language does not distinguish these concepts. To the vast majority of people, "sex" and "gender" are synonyms, and as such there is no common convention as to whether gendered words refer to gender or sex. Any attempt to distinguish them will require either modifiers or laying out a convention at the start of the text for how terms will be used. Which to use will depend on your target audience, but here are some suggestions:

  • Use different sets of common English terms for the two concepts, such as "man" and "woman" for gender and "male" and "female" for sex. If you do this, you must explain that this is the convention you are using at the start, and may want to include reminders later on.
  • Use modifiers on gendered words. Something like "biological male" and "identified male". I would recommend against having only one of the terms marked, such as using "biological male" for sex and "male" for gender, to prevent confusion or implication that one is more valid than the other.
  • Use other ways of marking gendered words, such as "female (s)" and "female (g)" to distinguish the gender and sex senses of the words. This can harm readability by disrupting the natural flow, but it's fairly compact and avoids any ambiguity.
  • Use existing jargon if this is an academic audience. Check the literature of the field for the proper terms, though still take care to avoid ambiguity as your audience may be multidisciplinary.

polar pair of terms that clearly refers to organisms with a specific sex

You don't specify species, so I will broaden this beyond humans. Most polar pairs of terms for non-human species are generally used to discuss biological sex - cock/hen, bull/cow. When co-opted to describe humans, these terms sometimes become transferred to refer to gender roles though.

  • Iʼd say, for humans they always refer to gender.
    – Crissov
    Oct 27 '19 at 17:33

Within the transgender community, the most widely used terms are 'AFAB' and 'AMAB', referring to, respectively, the state of being assigned female at birth and assigned male at birth. I am unsure as to how widespread this usage is outside of that community, but the terms do refer to the biological sex of a person and not their gender.

Of course, more commonly used alternatives to these are simply 'biologically female' and 'biologically male', although those run the risk of excluding intersex people.

  • Do you really think calling someone "AMAB", abbreviated or not, will be ever widespread outside the mentioned communities?
    – Ivan
    Oct 26 '19 at 13:20
  • No, I honestly don't, especially since the need for the term is limited outside said communities. That's why I also suggested using 'biologically female' etc. as alternatives.
    – Jackalope
    Oct 26 '19 at 13:22

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