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December 6, 2021

The They/Them of It

*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.

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The “They/Them” of It

Economy and precision in speaking and writing is a valued treasure dear to most of us who use language. Etymologists try to practice in accord with “Ockham’s Razor” and not introduce terms that are unnecessary. Unnecessarily introducing new words, or double-timing old ones, is particularly annoying to etymologists and linguists who try to preserve the purity of our language. This is especially true when we for sake of brevity say things like, “He “medaled” in the Olympics,” thus begging a noun, “medal’ to serve as a verb “medaled”, a “verb” that has forced its way into our vocabulary, rather than earning its way, to the consternation of those who care about language.

Acronyms are not a problem because the are not words but shorthand. An acronym can legitimately stand for anything we want it to stand for, a company name, a title, a fraternity and so forth, “MSN,” for example, is an acronym for Microsoft Network, and is universally recognized as such, but even here we can have problems for “MSN” also serves as a universally accepted acronym for “Monosodium Gluconate,” a seasoning enhancer we all love to hate. In many instances we must rely on context to understand the meaning of an acronym.

I doubt whether any who are linguistically inclined object to the acronym “LGBTQ” because it is, after all, and acronym and not a word, but I cannot help but wonder about the recent and ongoing attempts to introduce long established terms such as they, them, themselves, their, and so forth, which are gender neutral plural pronouns to serve singular usages for those who feel offended by the “colloquial” he, she, him, her. When attempts are made to bully words into new usages it is bound to be offensive to the linguistically sensitive.

Recently I emailed a friend and in closing I said, “say hello to your daughter.” I received the “correction” that “(her name) is now a “them/they.” In a following communication I ended by, “Tell your lovely daughter, (her name) hi from me.” Whatever my friend’s adolescent daughter’s identity may be, I am not going to confuse myself by the language I use or participate in corrupting the language I use.

The use of gender neutral pronouns goes back to 1792[1] and has been gathering momentum over the last three centuries. Language evolve as cultures evolve, slowly. It is a pity that it is taking so long for our language to reflect and value women and get away from “he” and other masculine pronouns to refer to our feminine counterpart; but the days for the jack-of-all trades “he” are numbered. We have come a long way since we heard people say, “Everyone should get “himself” ready, to the current preferred, “Everyone should get “themselves” ready. It took decades of coming to terms with our biases, particularly male dominated ones, to accept the possibility of introducing plural terms for singular usages or both singular and plural usages to denote either sex. I cannot but wonder if the fathers of our language realized they had a mother, especially when deliberately referring to a known female as “he,” which is still common, myself as guilty as anyone.

But what is going on now is a much more unnatural attempt at forcefully introducing new terms or reinventing old ones to rush into usage ways of speaking that might take decades to organically become part of our vocabulary, as the email mentioned above illustrates. Language is to communicate ideas and feelings. I am sure my friend knew quite well who I was talking about, why was it so necessary to inform me of her daughter’s current sexual identity? If someone asks the time, do we need to tell them how to build a watch?

If we want to keep language simple, let new terms evolve through natural usage over a long period of time. To rush this process, perhaps to seek credibility for a lifestyle or personal identity, can be offensive to those who do not wish to be told that their manner of speaking is wrong and are unwilling to have a new vocabulary forced upon them. It is not the terms that are in question, but the enthusiasm to see them put to use.

To say, “She medaled at the Olympics,” and “She won a medal at the Olympics,” is to sacrifice correctness for the sake of brevity. Shorthand is for dictation and if we want to preserve our language we should confine it to that. We have inherited a very rich English language that enables us to express ourselves in long established terms. While research is continuously introducing new terms it does so legitimately for new discoveries demand introducing terms to describe newly revealed phenomena. That is not the case with “They/Them” or “medaled,” the former trying to bully its way into our vocabulary, while the latter has already succeeded.[2]

If we care about how we think and speak and how our language serves us we should be more vigilant about what we allow to slip from our tongue. If we have terms to serve the purpose of what we wish to say we should use them and be leery of the laziness on our part that fosters the deterioration of language. Following the way of Ockham’s Razor, we will serve language best by using established ways of speaking and referring to things rather than introducing “unique” ways just for the sake of doing it. Not following Ockham’s Razor only leads to the proliferation of poor English. “Unique” terms breed others and rather than language expressing our ideas as its main function, the language itself becomes the main issue.

The value of “plain language” was treasured and advocated by many philosophers and scholars, who broke away from the tradition of explaining their complex ideas in a vocabulary of an elite few, in favor of challenging themselves to put aside their sophisticated and often pompous vocabulary in favor of the simple. Ludwig Wittgenstein is the most notable example of this trend, when he, as one of the most renowned scholars, philosophers, and mathematicians of the 20th century began a movement to use “plain English” when in his writings he used lay-language to express his ground-breaking ideas.

The preservation of our language should be a concern for everyone. A little bit of mindfulness and vigilance when we speak is all that is necessary to keep our language intact. If we are lazy or complacent our language will be undermined and since language and how we use it effects not only how we communicate with others, but our thinking, as well, we must mind our Ps & Qs.

[1] Wikipedia: When Scottish economist advocated the indeterminate “ou.”

[2] This author is well aware that there are close to 80 new words or new usages for old ones currently being established to accommodate a host of personal identities. For simplicity I am not including them as doing so is unnecessary.

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