Who? Or What? Word Choice Matters!

Two blog posts in one day?! Yikes! Well I guess when it is flowing there’s no point stopping it.

If you haven’t read “Breaking Out of More of Society’s Chains” please do so. This post does not make much sense without the context of that post. I was actually just sitting down to write this post and struggling to introduce it in a way that was not egotistical or offensive. At that moment, a comment appeared on that previous post, from Wendie. Here is an excerpt of that comment:

…After listening to the song it made me feel slightly sad that it was written in such a way to say, what I am. You are not a what or a thing you are a beautiful person.. You are a who. I hope you can be proud to be, who you are. …

I was sitting here and reflecting on that very word choice. Yesterday when I first heard the song, I thought it was “who.” When I went back to look up the video to link it today I realized the song is “what.” Looking back, they were singing “what” yesterday but I automatically edited that in my mind to “who.” When I originally wrote the blog post, I wrote it using who, not what. I had so sit and think about why they would choose the word “what.” I went back and I changed all the whos that I wrote to whats. Here’s why:

They repeat the word choice so much it cannot be a mistake. Why would they choose to write the song “what?” That led me into in-depth analysis of the song. Not only why did they choose that word but also why did I auto-correct it in my mind last night. I did what I do best… Over analyze. First I went searching for definitions. I have bolded the definitions that apply as the song uses the word what.

What (h)wət,(h)wät


  1. asking for information specifying something. “what is your name?”
  2. asking for repetition of something not heard or confirmation of something not understood. “what? I can’t hear you”
  3. the thing or things that (used in specifying something). “what we need is a commitment”
  4. (referring to the whole of an amount) whatever. “I want to do what I can to make a difference”
  5. (Dialect) who or that. “the one what got to my house”
  6. (in exclamations) emphasizing something surprising or remarkable. “what some people do for attention!”


  1. asking for information specifying something. “what time is it?”
  2. (referring to the whole of an amount) whatever. “he had been robbed of what little money he had”
  3. (in exclamations) how great or remarkable. “what luck!”


  1. to what extent? “what does it matter?”
  2. used to indicate an estimate or approximation. “see you, what, about four?”
  3. informaldated: used for emphasis or to invite agreement. “pretty poor show, what?”

Who (ho͞o)


  1. What or which person or people. “who is that woman?”
  2. Used to introduce a clause giving further information about a person or people previously mentioned. “Joan Fontaine plays the mouse who married the playboy”


  1. The person that; whoever. “who holds the sea, perforce doth hold the land”

If you presume that it is not always being used as dialect then there was a conscious reason for avoiding the word “who.” After a couple moments thinking about it, and looking at the definitions, I realized why they used what instead of who…

They chose to use the word what by this definition


  1. The thing or things that (used in specifying something) “what we need is a commitment”

For society as a whole being transgender, transvestite, genderqueer, or bi-gender over rides any other fact about whom you are. It becomes the thing specifies who you are. Since society as a whole does not understand it… Society fears it. Society does not see me being transgender as one of the facets of who I am. Society sees being transgender as what I am. The singular thing specifies what I am. I am not a multiple faceted person anymore. I am a thing. I am a what. Until society accepts us as multifaceted people, the lyric remains what. For me, in my mind, it is and always been who. I see the multiple facets of myself and being transgender is only part of who I am. That song spoke to me in a way that I always heard it as about me at least partly and that made me edit it in my mind to who.

To an extent Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals had the same problem. All of a sudden in the last couple of years, they have changed to using who. Why? Society as a whole can now look past someone being gay into the deeper sections of who they are. So now, it is only one facet of their multi-faceted existence. As being Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual becomes more acceptable more and more of the people in those groups are using the word who.

I hope that someday, we can too.

This is their commentary on what society thinks of us. Society thinks about us as “what” but we know in our heart that we are a “who.” What we are makes news. Who we are is not the news worthy part. Listen next time there is a news item about a transgender person. It’s damn near offensive. Why should we give society the benefit of glancing into our heart and seeing who we are, when all they can see is what we are?

Wendie, thank you, You saw that it should be who. You saw that it was clear that we are people too, not just things. I hope many people are bothered in the same way you are. Only in that way will we achieve progress and equality. The word choice was specific to further bring awareness to the problem that being transgender is used to define us. Many things about us are assumed because we are transgender. Transgender is what we are to society.

Please watch the song again with all that in mind. Please note: that before the song even starts Georges says “They are who they are and they’re on their way here” about the people trying to crush their life style. Georges gave people trying to destroy their lifestyle the respect of using who, but because of the way society looks at transgender and trans* people in general… Albin can’t use “who” in a song about him.

It’s a song where he’s trying to hold up his identity. He’s trying to validate himself but the entire song is undermined by society as a whole…

3 thoughts on “Who? Or What? Word Choice Matters!”

  1. In the use of who vs what I see them both having important roles in communication. I see who we are as what defines us as a person. Most people would respond with their name, characteristics, their family, etc… The what are all descriptors that are used to index us. Man, Female, Trans, Black, White, Short, Tall, fat, skinny, etc… I see all of those the same. To say something is who you are is to say that defines your very being. Putting this in perspective of race, if I say I am black man is who I am, then I am saying my race and gender define me. Personally, I feel it is my actions, choices, and characteristics that define me. I would never say my race is who I am, because how can i be defined by something I could not choose? My gender is very similar as I wouldn’t say “I am a manly man.”

    So I am trying to clarify. Is your use of who intended to show what you feel defines you? Or… does bringing Gender Identification into the picture change the formula? Identification is definitely a personal perspective, and as such could definitely define you. It is just very unclear given my own perspective. (This is also putting society aside)

    1. Jon, you always have a way of making me think. I’ve been reading/rereading and perplexing over your comment since I read it around 9:15p at work. I hope I understand your comment well enough to properly respond to it. So here goes.

      What has an equal place in society without a doubt. I’m not at all saying that what has no value. However when a “what” describes you, you have fallen into the trap of one singular thing being your definition. The idea of a what definition is that it is the SINGLE thing that best describes this is the kind of question you get asked on forms. “what is your sex.. Male or Female?” This is when someone doesn’t really care about you but needs some information about you. Who is more in-depth. Who, to me at least, implies that want to know you to be able to interact with you in the future. Please see some examples below.

      If someone came up to me and asked “What are you?” (Most people would not ask such a question) I would say whatever one word answer I felt BEST described me, as of right now that is transgender. I would respond with I am a transgender person. Last year around this time I would have said “I am a Computer Technician.” The reason I choose THAT is because of right now I fit the most stereotypes of that answer. The goal is to give as much accurate information in as short of an answer as possible. This of course leads to inaccurate information. Most computer technicians and techies, for instance, are not seen as good teachers, but I am seen that way. This is not how I would define myself in my heart. I’m not by any means letting it define me, but I can tell this person doesn’t REALLY care about me and just needs to know something about me for some reason or another. The most common what are you question is “What is your name?” Every form you fill out is what question after what question. Very few actually try to get to know and understand you. The what questions drive society.

      If someone came up and asked me “Who are you?” I would probably say something to the effect of: “I am a unique person who is just starting to see the true colors of life. I am struggling to figure out who I am in many ways but I do know that I am a person who enjoys helping others and will greatly inconvenience myself to do so. I am a caring gentile person who gets emotional when things are not being approached or solved in an efficient way or someone is being mistreated. I love being with my family and friends. Nothing gives me more joy then to see the moment on someone’s face when a struggle of theirs has ended. I love to teach people new things and experience the moments where everything clicks. I love telling stories and writing. I have skills with technology, games, and writing among other things. I enjoy fixing problems. I love sitting around a table playing games with my best friends. I enjoy looking and feeling nice. I am a person who has a large mismatch between how I see myself and how the people around me and society as a whole see me.” As you can see it’s a much longer answer, but it is a better definition of who I am than “Transgender” Where the what questions drive society the who questions drive people. There is very little in there about age, race, gender, etc. In fact the only things that would lead me to believe that I was transgender in any way are the very beginning and very end.

      A society, and the people within it, cannot live just on the surface level on just the surface level what questions or the deeper who questions. Neither is any less or more valid than the other. Society cannot survive getting to know anyone THAT well and a person without who questions has no identity. They don’t even know who they are…

      To cycle back to the song: He’s trying to express himself in who he’s trying to give himself an identity, but it’s trapped by society and the fact that it only looks at people at a surface level. Society and the news will always attempt to classify people, by age, race, creed, gender it doesn’t matter. If each person is their own person if each person has their own identity society cannot handle it. It cannot draw conclusions about other people it cannot predict events.

      What and Who absolutely both have a purpose. What is used to interact with society. Who is used to define yourself. The problem comes in when society pushes so much burden onto you that whatever you are to society because your ONLY identity. Which is what I fear happens to most transgender people.

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