English has a gender problem — but it’s not a new problem. He and she (along with his and her) are perfectly functional singular pronouns, but they aren’t much help when you need to discuss one person in a nongendered way. This old issue is newly relevant as transgendered people and people without a primary gender demand words to match their lives. These days, he and she are less useful and less universal than ever.
It’s likely they will be the permanent solution to this problem, since it’s been used as singular for centuries and is getting more acceptance all the time — including being named 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. One of the main factors in the success of they is that it doesn’t look weird when you use it, unlike ne, thon, ita, and hersh — all real words suggested over the centuries as potential nonbinary pronouns. Though such words have all flopped, it’s worth remembering these coinages that failed to fill the gap. They show that this issue (which feels so contemporary) is actually centuries old — and that people are quite creative when it comes to word-coining.
Much of the research on the quest for a gender-neutral singular pronoun has been conducted by Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Baron’s recently updated paper, “The Words That Failed: A Chronology of Early Nonbinary Pronouns,” (originally published in American Speech and currently available on his Web of Language site) tells the story of le, hiser, sheme, ala, po, and dozens of other words created to fill English’s gender gap since 1792.
Such words haven’t failed due to a lack of purpose or creativity. The oldest such coinage is ou, a dialect word that Scottish economist and philosopher James Anderson suggested elevating to standard English. Some coinages attempted to blend more familiar words: hiser is a union of his and her coined in 1850. In an 1868 letter to the Boston Recorder, a reader suggested terms that would today cause confusion among “Star Wars” fans: han, hans, and hanself. Of all the failed pronouns, Baron has a favorite: ip, coined by Emma Carleton in 1884. Though Baron finds ip adorable, he admits: “I would never use it other than to say it’s cute.”
Baron identifies three main reasons why the invented pronouns have flopped. The first is that “You simply can’t create and legislate language.” Language changes by evolution, not declaration. As Baron says, “There’s no mechanism for adoption” and “You can coin whatever you want” — but that doesn’t mean anyone will use it, just as a bazillion commercials can’t make the masses go to a movie.
While it’s impossible to make any word successful by force of will, pronouns are an even tougher lexical nut to crack, as Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and author of a forthcoming book on Internet language, observes: “It’s hard to make new pronouns catch on because pronouns are part of a small group of words called function words: short, common words that help stick other words together, like the, of, and, a, that, to, my, and so on. Pronouns and other function words do change sometimes — we used to have thou/thee/you/ye, for example, and now we just have you — but they change a lot less frequently than longer, more contentful words (like selfie or facepalm).”
The second reason such words have failed is that most invented pronouns look and sound bizarre, with unusual spellings and difficult pronunciations: Oddballs rarely do well in the Darwinian race to language success. This fact was pinpointed by Allen Metcalf, cofounder of the American Dialect Society Word of the Year event, who created the FUDGE scale to predict the success of words. FUDGE names five factors that influence a word’s success: frequency of use, unobtrusiveness, diversity of users, generation of meanings and forms, and endurance of the concept. Most proposed nonbinary pronouns were used rarely by anyone and spawned few additional forms, but the real culprit is the U in FUDGE: Terms such as zyhe, heesh, co, and mef are all extremely obtrusive. When it comes to words, the sore thumbs don’t catch on.
The third reason no quirky coinage has succeeded is that no new word is necessary. As Michael Adams, Indiana University professor and author of “Slang: The People’s Poetry” and “Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon,” puts it, “Why invent a new word when an old one will do?” Baron adds that, though they is newly relevant due to the increased profile of people with nonconforming gender, this word has been “simmering in the background (of English) for years and years.” In fact, they has been used as singular since at least the 14th century; that history makes for a far more graceful adoption. McCullough adds, “If there’s one thing that’s even harder than getting an entire society to adopt a new pronoun, it’s getting them to stop using a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun in favor of a different one.”
As for the objection that they and their must always be plural, Adams retorts, “The only people who need a new word to do the gender-neutral job are those who want a ‘clean’ system with no plurals acting like singulars, no masculines acting like feminines, as though one word can’t serve two or more purposes — but every speaker knows they can. Most speakers prefer efficiency over logic.”
Another question has accompanied the search for a nonbinary singular pronoun: What to call these words? Often they’ve been described as common gender or gender neutral. When Baron first wrote his paper on such words, he used epicene, a word used to describe Greek and Latin words that can apply to either gender. These days, as awareness of nonbinary sexualities has increased, the word nonbinary has also attached itself to these words, taking the lead as the best current label.
But whatever you call words as different in form and success as they and ip, they’re signs of the times and of something timeless — English ain’t perfect, and people will keep trying to duct tape the holes. Though most attempts fail, you have to admire the persistent creativity and effort to represent more people. Promoting words like thon and approving singular they are really about accepting you and me.
Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.