Dispatches from the land of sweet linguistic irony

(Wherein our intrepid hero answers awkward, unasked questions about sexuality)

One might feel inclined these days, to feel a certain degree of fondness for the metrosexuals that adorn our city streets, imagining them to be modern-day dandies – honest-to-goodness Beau Brummels in our very midst. One might be inclined to think “ah, it is so marvellously lovely to still have an appreciation for the aesthetic so visibly on hand“. One might, of course, be inclined to think a lot of things, but on this particular point, one would be wrong. My interest is not, however, to produce some lengthy lecture on the evils of metrosexuality – I am sure, given time, the relevant religious institutions shall take care of that duty for me. However, I shall say this: unlike the dandies of yesteryear, the modern metrosexual is not, in fact, an aesthete. Certainly, they place importance on their grooming and appearance, and I can certainly understand how one might make the mistake, however, beyond their own outward appearance, metrosexuals do not aspire to the aesthetic greatness of the dandies. They do not wish to elevate themselves and their surrounds to a level of art, so much as they want to look good in a tight pair of jeans. However, I shall digress no further on this, as the point I really wish to make is entirely one of linguistic etymology.

Now, most people are probably aware (or able to guess at) the (supposed) etymology of the term “metrosexual“. It is, so our dictionaries tell us, a fusion of the words “metropolitan” and “heterosexual“, and is intended to convey the idea of a sort of person who has a thoroughly urbane sense of style. However, clever though the term may be, it seems rather misleading as, after all, metrosexuality is not really about sexuality at all. One might, of course, argue that the stylistic behaviour demonstrated by metrosexuals is generally similar to the stereotypical style of the modern homosexual, and that this connotation is implied in the term – indeed, the term does relate specifically to heterosexual males. However, given that the term is only really specific to heterosexuals because it would seem, in the popular view, superfluous to use it to describe a homosexual man, and does not specifically describe a sexual preference so much as a stylistic one, that does, I feel, seem a rather long bow to draw. Particularly when, as I shall show, there appears to be a simpler explanation which is much more closely tied to the meaning of the words.

Now to begin with, let us take the word heterosexual. This is a compound of two words – hetero, from the Greek heteros, meaning “other” or “different” and sexual, which, well, I’m sure you can figure it out. Now the next word is of course, metropolitan. Intriguingly, the politan comes from the Greek polis, which means “city” – and gives one pause for thought. After all, if meterosexual specifically refers to urbane urban males, should not the word for city – polis – be the appropriate one to use in the word? Combined with the fact that the word specifically refers to heterosexual males, shouldn’t the hetero be in the word too? Shouldn’t, really, the word be heteropolitan? Perhaps, however, our answer can be found by examining the meaning of the word-stem metro, which comes from the Greek meter, which means “mother“.


I am sure that your clever minds can now deduce the correct meaning of the word metrosexual. However, what really gives one pause for thought is this: one can imagine that this circumstance is merely an amusing linguistic accident – a morphemic Freudian slip, if you will. Certainly, the commonly understood etymology of the word (metropolitan + heterosexual) would seem to imply this is the case. And if it were the case that a more correct term could not be formed with the same rhyming cleverness, I might be inclined to agree. However, as I have demonstrated, heteropolitan really does make more sense, and would work just as well (not that, frankly, I would want to see it to enter common usage). Which brings to mind, then, the alternative that makes me wonder so: what if it was done on purpose? What if, in fact, this whole time, metrosexuals the world over have been the butt of some cunning linguist’s joke?

Wouldn’t that be simply marvellous?

Published in: on January 18, 2008 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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