30 January 2010


One often comes across the facile assertion that Magnus Hirschfeld coined the word ‘transvestite’ in the 1920s. Unfortunately for this assertion, transvest* and the French form travest* have been around as noun, verb and adjective for almost 500 years.

Here is a potted history of ‘transvestite’ and similar words in mainly English and French. To write this I used the Oxford English Dictionary and the Petit Robert. The Wikipedia article on En Travesti was also consulted.
  • The Italian ‘travestire’ from the Latin ‘transvestire’ is recorded in the 16th century. It is first recorded in French as ‘transvestir’ in 1569, and had become ‘travestir’ by 1580. The Italian origin probably accounts for the retained ‘s’ rather than a circumflex, as opposed to ‘větir’ without the prefix. The original meaning is dressing up or disguise rather than gendervesting in particular. The English meaning of ‘travesty’ as ‘ridiculous’ is not used in the French.
  • The word ‘travesty’ first became well known in England in 1648 with Scarron’s satire, Le Virgile Travesty en vers burlesque. So the modern English meaning of things done badly or ridiculously was there almost from the start, but so was the meaning of dressing as another.
  • However the pseudo-French expression ‘en travesti’, using the past participle of the verb, which is not recorded in French, was used particularly in the theatre with the specific meaning of dressing as the other gender. This usage has continued from the seventeenth century until today.
  • The verb form, ‘to travesty’, is not found until after 1700, and was not needed for the sense of Gendervesting, for the verb ‘to transvest’ is recorded from 1652: “How often did she please her fancy with the imagination of transvesting herself, and by the help of Man’s disguise deceiving the eyes of those who watched her deportment”. This usage, particularly applied to female-bodied persons continued into the nineteenth century.
  • 'Travestissement' was being used in France by 1692.
  • 'Transvestisme' is recorded in French in1845. The Petit Robert lists it as an hapax (only one recorded instance) in this period, but just as Ed Wood used ‘transsexual’ before Harry Benjamin did, people on the street are using words before dictionary compilers catch up with them.
  • 'Travestiment' was being used in England by 1832, and 'Travestier' by 1883.
Thus Hirschfeld was rather a Magnus-come-lately a far as being a coiner of the term. However he and Sigmund Freud did reinvigorate the concept, although the psychoanalysts in Freud’s wake have done a lot of damage in rewriting transvestism to be a fetish and a perversion. While ‘travesty’, especially in English, always had a second meaning of ridiculous or badly done, the associated words did not, before the twentieth century, have the meaning of neurosis or perversion.

The enduring calumnification of ‘transvestism’ is probably the reason why ‘transvestity’ did not evolve, while ‘transsexuality’ did evolve alongside ‘transsexualism’.

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