What’s the origin of the word ‘androgynous’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: androgynous…

I think just about everyone knows the term, androgynous means, “partly male and partly female in appearance; of indeterminate sex.” The photo atop this post shows a woman who might be best described as androgynous.

It’s practically an everyday word nowadays, and I encountered it most recently in a May 28/18 New Yorker story about the French film director Claire Denis. (It ran under the headline, “The Fearless Cinema of Claire Denis.”) Here is the  sentence (by Alice Gregory) in which it appeared:

A recent throat surgery had roughened Denis’s already gravelly voice — it sounded at times as though she were impersonating a sexily androgynous Frenchwoman, instead of merely being one. 

The adjective dates from the early 17th century and is derived from the older French and English term androgyne. The word ultimately came from Ancient Greek: ἀνδρόγυνος, from ἀνήρ, stem ἀνδρ– (anér, andr-, meaning man) and γυνή (gunē, gyné, meaning woman) through the Latin: androgynus. 

It should not be confused with the word androgenous, which means “pertaining to the production of or tending to produce male offspring.”

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 27/18.

Scroll to Top