Singular They: Nonbinary Language in the Historical Community

Historians in the News
tags: gender, language

Word nerds look forward every December to the announcement of Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. Using lookups in their online dictionary, the M-W staff choose words that have shown a marked uptick in activity. This data led them to declare previous Words of the Year such as “bailout” in 2008, “austerity” in 2010, and “feminism” in 2017. It’s not hard to see how current events, politics, and culture influence these choices; the Great Recession hit in 2008 and endured into 2010, while the Women’s March in 2017 rejuvenated discussions around the world about feminism and gender equality. In 2019, M-W declared that the Word of the Year was “they,” reflecting an increase in usage of the word as a singular pronoun, with lookups nearly double the previous year. 

For decades, Americans have been jettisoning gendered language from their vocabularies, embracing terminology that can be used for any gender. In air travel, stewardesses have become flight attendants; restaurants now employ servers instead of waiters and waitresses; firefighters and police officers have replaced firemen and policemen in our communities. People question how descriptors like “bossy” vs. “assertive” are applied based on gender.

But pronouns have been a sticky problem. As the dictionary’s staff wrote in explaining their pick, “English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, someone, and anyone, and as a consequence ‘they’ has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.” Writers as illustrious as Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote using the singular “they.” Nonbinary folks have tried in the past to adopt new pronouns, like “ze/zir” or “ze/hir.” But those never caught on widely the way that “they” has. The use of the singular “they” as a pronoun was added as a sense (“definition,” to the layperson) in M-W in September 2019: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” For those who identify as nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or genderqueer, this change reflects and affirms their usage of the pronoun.

Pronouns come up in all kinds of professional settings for historians. Many conferences, including the AHA annual meeting, now give attendees the option to identify their pronouns when registering and on their conference badges. Some choose to list their pronouns in email signatures or in social media bios, making it easier to know how to address someone or talk about them in digital communications. These habits are now encouraged for trans- and cisgender people alike, as it normalizes the practice for all. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History