This really is a word that could go two ways.

On the one hand, its form suggests something fun or exotic or, well, epic – it starts with epic, after all, and French speakers will know that épice means “spice” and piscine means “pool” (the latter two syllables of epicene in English sound like piscine in French). It has overtones of prehistoricity – the Pleistocene epoch, perhaps. It is close to epicentre. It even sounds a little like obscene (and the sounds of it can be rearranged – an anaphone, if you will – to say “a penis”). Those three e’s look eager and ready to my eyes, and the pi pokes down and up like something trying to fight out of a sack. The word stays right up at the front of the mouth – lips, tongue tip, front vowels – which could, if you want, be taken as being as though the word is at the point of jumping out.

But the source of the word is Greek ἐπί epi “on, at, around” and κοινός koinos “common”, which makes it pretty much about normal, and it refers to things that are neutral – specifically gender-neutral. They can go either way. It referred first to words in Greek that could denote either sex without changing grammatical gender – for instance παρθένος parthenos “virgin”, which can refer to a male or female virgin – just as can the equally epicene English word virgin. From that it has come to refer to similar words in other languages (a notable current use is epicene pronoun, referring to a gender-neutral pronoun – especially use of they for third-person singular), and it has also been used to refer to unisex things (e.g., clothing), as well as persons of things stripped of perceptible sex (masculinity or femininity).

But it has also come to be used on occasion to refer to androgyny of the sort that, rather than lacking male or female characteristics (like Pat – the name and the character from Saturday Night Live), has notable qualities of both (think Victor/Victoria). Even in its way of referring to something that can go two ways, there are two ways it can do it. The word may yet have some spice in it.

2 responses to “epicene

  1. There is also Ben Jonson’s comedy Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, in which the point of the name is concealed until the dénouement. The noise-averse old man Morose, against good advice, marries a young wife in the hope that she will be silent. She isn’t, and he regrets it and wants to rid himself of her. After the usual complicated mishaps, she is literally undone when Morose’s nephew, who was disinherited by the marriage, rips off her clothes and reveals her to be a boy. Quite risqué for 1609.

    Full text of the play is at

  2. You make us lean
    To epicene,
    But androgynous
    is near synonymous

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