A wood engraving by Hugo Vogel of a Norse raid under Olaf Tryggvesson, circa 994 AD. Along with “they,” English gets the word “berserk” from the Old Norse language.

A wood engraving by Hugo Vogel of a Norse raid under Olaf Tryggvesson, circa 994 AD. Along with “they,” English gets the word “berserk” from the Old Norse language.

World O’ Words: The awesome power of “they”

The Word of the Year for 2015 and 2019 has sparked a lot of discussion over the millennium

There are many hills you can pick to die on, as they say, in the Culture Wars, which are tearing families apart and turning brother against sister, sister against brother.

One of these is the use of personal pronouns, particularly as applied to a person’s gender or gender identity. It’s a subject that’s prompted much discussion and no small degree of rancor.

When I was in Grade 3, if a person had told me that pronouns — particularly third person singular pronouns — would become such a divisive topic I would have said they were crazy! But you know what they say: “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” (Actually, Edgar Allan Poe said that.)

“They,” as a third person singular pronoun, is nothing new at all. In fact, English speakers have been using it as such since the 14th Century — its first use as a singular appeared only 100 years after speakers started using “they” as a third person plural pronoun.

“They” to refer to a single person was accepted common usage for the next half millennium — it was only in the 19th Century that they began to say it was not okay to use “they” in this way — that it was grammatically incorrect. But they, whoever they are, are wrong. Or at least not right. Because it makes perfect sense to use “they” as a singular pronoun, and “their” as the determiner.

Consider: “Someone lost their wallet in in the parking lot.” This is considered correct. And anyone reading or hearing this sentence wouldn’t be confused in the slightest, which is the bottom line of communication.

“A person should be able to order a beer if they want to. But if they’ve lost their wallet, they can’t.”

After all, English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun. All we have is “he” or “she” (as well as “it”). So for centuries, writers and speakers have often used the plural pronouns like “they” and “their” to fill this etymological gap. But also, traditionally, writers and speakers have used “he” to refer to indefinite pronouns, which is what I was taught in Grade 3.

So: “If that person is looking for his wallet, I have it.” Well, what if the person is a woman?

It was not that long ago, in my experience, that we were instructed to write or say “he or she,” when referring to an indefinite pronoun, which we all agree is clumsy.

“If that person is looking for his or her wallet, I have found it. He or she can buy me a beer.” So much easier to just say: “If that person is looking for their wallet, I have found it. They can buy me a beer.”

There is a little debate about which to use for the reflexive inflection in this case — “themself” or “themselves.” In Canada, both are considered correct. The choice is ours. How about that?

As mentioned, “they” as a third person singular has been use for 800 years or so. It derives from the Old Norse. Another great word the Vikings gave us, along with “berserk.” *

But 800 years later, “they” has taken on another subtle nuance of meaning, and that is its use as singular pronoun for people who identify as non-binary — who do not identity as either male or female. This is enough to drive some people berserk. Political parties have been founded in opposition to this. It’s remarkable, the power a word has to create discussion. But you know what they say about words: “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” (Actually, Pearl Strachan Hurd said that).

Now, a non-binary person — or a trans or gender-non-conforming person — can use whatever pronoun they want. Most prefer “they,” for ease of communication. “I bought my friend a beer, ‘cause they lost their wallet. But they haven’t bought me one in return yet.”

But there are many new pronouns which have come into specific usage. Check it out:

• she; her; hers; herself

• he, him; his; himself

• (f)ae; (f)aer; (f)aers; (f)aerself

• e/ey; em; eirs; eirself

• per; per; pers, perself

• xe; xem; xyrs; xemself

• ve; ver; vis; verself

• ze/zie; hir, hirs, hirself

• they; them; theirs; themself.

There are even more of these. In some ways, it’s exciting that the gender issues of the past 20 years and today have created an opportunity for our language to evolve. This is double plus good, if you ask me.

In fact; the American Dialect Society named “they” as its Word of the Year for 2015, and Merriam Webster named “they” the Word of the Year for 2019.

Our languages and the words we use are such a multifaceted reflection of our lives as we are living them, the debates we are having about our societies, the problems that arise and the ways we solve them.

Such is the awesome power of “they.” The one become many and the many become one.

* “Berserk” comes from the Old Norse “berserkr” — “ber” (bear) and “serkr” (shirt). So if someone goes berserk, they’ve gone “bear-shirt crazy.”

Sources: Celeste Mora, grammarly.com; apastyle.apa.org; merriamwebster.com