Odd Words: Berdache

Berdache Ceremony - George Catlin

We’ve made it to page 25 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. And you know what? I knew all the words except for one: berdache. But I have a feeling other people know this word. It’s so modern and edgy.

Beyond Berdache

The page was filled with be- words: bereft, beseech, besmitch, bespoke, betide, betrade. Geez! Very disappointing. But I’m quite glad to learn berdache. With so much discussion of people who see their gender as different from their sex, it’s good to remember that things have always been that way. Social conservatives want to pretend that it is all some kind of liberal conspiracy and that everyone would be exactly the same if they weren’t given “ideas.”

So onward with the word of the day: berdache.

Ber·dache  noun  \bər-‘dash\

1. an American Indian tribesman who adopts the clothing and duties of a woman.

Date: 17th century.

Origin: from the French bardache, which goes back to an Arabic word that seems to describe a sex slave, which itself goes back to a Persian word for a prisoner.

Example: Men who were poor hunters, possibly berdaches, procured bark for the cabins, ran errands back to the town where the old people were left, made wooden bowls and dishes and clay tobacco pipes.John Lawson


From my brief reading, the word “berdache” is meant to indicate not a discrete individual or form of behavior but rather the continuum of people and their behavior. In recent years, the term “two-spirit” has become popular. But it is important in such matters to remember that there is no such think as an American Indian or Native American. There are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. And I don’t know how many there were when the Europeans began their invasion. But the diversity of cultures in North America was enormous. So when discussing “berdache,” we want to be careful about making too many assumptions. It is a word used to describe a lot of different behavior from an outsider’s perspective.


I screwed up and did Page 25 when I should have done Page 24. I’ll do Page 24 tomorrow.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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