Where Gender-Neutral Pronouns Come FromHistorians in the News
tags: gender, language, LGBTQ history
On a frigid january day, Ella Flagg Young—the first woman to serve as superintendent of the Chicago public-school system—took the stage in front of a room of school principals and announced that she had come up with a new solution to an old problem. “I have simply solved a need that has been long impending,” she said. “The English language is in need of a personal pronoun of the third person, singular number, that will indicate both sexes and will thus eliminate our present awkwardness of speech.” Instead of he or she, or his or her, Young proposed that schools adopt a version that blended the two: he’er, his’er, and him’er.
It was 1912, and Young’s idea drew gasps from the principals, according to newspaper reports from the time. When Young used his’er in a sentence, one shouted, “Wh-what was that? We don’t quite understand what that was you said.”
Young was actually borrowing the pronouns from an insurance broker named Fred S. Pond, who had invented them the year prior. But in the subsequent weeks, her proposal became a national news story, earning baffled write-ups in the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. Some embraced the new pronouns—but many dismissed them as an unnecessary linguistic complication, and others despaired that the introduction of gender-neutral pronouns would precipitate an end to language as they knew it. An editor for Harper’s Weekly, for instance, insisted that “when ‘man’ ceases to include women we shall cease to need a language.”
Today’s gender-neutral English-language pronouns make space not just for two genders, but for many more, serving as a way for people who fall outside the binary of “man” and “woman” to describe themselves. In recent years especially, they’ve become a staple of dating apps, college campuses, and email signatures. In 2020, a Trevor Project survey found that one in four LGBTQ youth uses pronouns other than he/him and she/her, and the American Dialect Society named the singular they its word of the decade.
Meanwhile, commentators have forecast the demise of language once again. A 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed went so far as to claim that using they/them pronouns amounted to “sacrilege,” and an Australian politician said that an effort to celebrate they/them pronouns was “political correctness gone mad.” Last month, after the singer Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary, a conservative commentator called they/them pronouns “poor grammar” and an example of “low academic achievement.” Bundled into these arguments is the idea that gender-neutral pronouns are a new phenomenon, an outgrowth of the internet that is only now spreading into other spheres—suggesting that the gender fluidity they describe is also a fad.
Until relatively recently, gender-neutral pronouns were something people used to describe others—mixed groups, or individuals whose gender was unknown—not something people used to describe themselves. But even though people did not, in Young’s time, personally identify as nonbinary in the way we understand it today (though some identified as “neuter”), neutral pronouns existed—as did an understanding that the language we had to describe gender was insufficient. For more than three centuries, at least, English speakers have yearned for more sophisticated ways to talk about gender.
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