Thursday, February 4, 2016

Thier (for Their)

The American Dialect Society has just given its official imprimatur to the word they "used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun." And I have to say it's about time. Writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen all freely employed it (along with their and them), and most of the rest of us speak this way without even thinking about it. ("Each and every applicant should bring their references with them.") But for some reason, we have long been told that it should really be "his references" or maybe "his or her references," so as not to sound quite so sexist. Some claim that "s/he" solves all of our problems, but it so really doesn't. What do you do, for example, with him, her, his, and hers? (Zir, zir, zirs, and zirs, zay zome.) And how do you even pronounce a word like "s/he"? It kind of reminds me of the time Sheldon and Rajesh discover an asteroid on The Big Bang Theory. At first, Sheldon proposes they name it after themselves, i.e., COOPER (Cooper + Koothrappali), but when Raj says, "So, KOOPER with a K?" Sheldon reconsiders: "Nah, that's dumb." The more romantic-minded Leonard then suggests they name it for their girlfriends and Sheldon concurs, noting that they can combine the "AM" from Amy and the "Y" from Emily. But Raj objects: "That just spells Amy!" Another use for the new and improved they/their/them, according to the ADC, is with regard to people whose gender is ambiguous or non-binary. ("The person in the front row pushed their hair out of their eyes so they could better view the LGBTQ PowerPoint presentation.") Certain reformers have even tried to invent entirely new words to fill this lacuna (co, ou, ze, etc.), and perhaps the transgender community will succeed where feminism has failed. The funny thing about today's picture and caption (chosen mainly for its inclusion of the word their) is that it seems to show no diversity at all in terms of race or gender, but rather runs the relative gamut in terms of facial hair, collars, and ties. The "singular they" has been used quite naturally for centuries and doesn't require learning anything new, just unlearning all the shame that grammarians have heaped upon those who have dared to put it in writing. For those two very good reasons (along with its now politically correct gender cred), we should soon be seeing it listed in dictionaries as a valid usage. There were 386 hits on Thier in OhioLINK today, and "too many records found for your search" in WorldCat.

(Illustration from Famous Composers and Their Works, v. 5, 1906, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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