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

Just Posted

Kurt Swanson’s dog Kona takes a break from the heat on the Summer Solstice near Cranbrook, B.C. (Kurt Swanson photo)
Very warm temperatures forecast across the Kootenays this weekend

Nelson, Castlegar forecast to hit 39, Cranbrook 37

With high temperatures forecasted for the week and into the next, Interior Health is offering some tips on how to keep yourself safe from heat-related illness. (Pixabay)
Interior Health offers safety tips as temperatures soar

‘Too much heat can be harmful to your health’

The view from the Eager Hill lookout in the Cranbrook Community Forest. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
New ‘Padawan’ trail at Eager Hill now open and ready for use

The 5km green flow trail is suitable for all ages

The City of Cranbrook and the Ktunaxa Nation raised the flag of the Ktunaxa Nation at the arches entrance into the city’s downtown core during a ceremony on Monday, June 21. Photo courtesy City of Cranbrook.
Ktunaxa Nation flag raised at downtown arches entrance

The Ktunaxa Nation flag was raised at the Cranbrook arches — the… Continue reading

Kimberley Search and Rescue were able to quickly respond to a call for service and transport an injured mountain biker to East Kootenay Regional Hospital over the weekend. Kimberley SAR file photo.
Kimberley Search and Rescue respond to injured mountain biker on Bootleg Mountain

Kimberley Search and Rescue responded to a call for service this past… Continue reading

Pictured is Mrs. O and her grade 4/5 class at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cranbrook. Mrs. O challenged her class to read 36,000 pages in May and they far surpassed that goal. The students were then allowed to choose her fate. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
WATCH: St. Mary’s Catholic School grade 4/5 class wins reading challenge

Teacher lets students choose fate after reading over 47,000 pages in one month

Robin Sanford and her fiance Simon Park were married in an impromptu ceremony at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on June 16. (Submitted photo)
Mom dies day after witnessing daughter’s hospital wedding in Abbotsford

Nurses help arrange impromptu ceremony in 3 hours for bride and groom

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. home owner grant won’t be altered, despite expert advice

Tax break for residences worth up to $1.6 million too popular

B.C. conservation officer Sgt. Todd Hunter said a black bear is believed to have killed local livestock. (THE NEWS/files)
Black bear believed to have killed miniature donkey in Maple Ridge

Trap set for predator that has been killing livestock

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki and Minister of Housing David Eby have been battling over the Victory Church shelter and BC Housing projects in the city. (File photos)
Penticton heads to court over homeless shelter as BC Housing audit begins

The city was not satisfied with the response from Minister David Eby regarding the ongoing situation

People enjoy the sun at Woodbine Beach on June 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
BC Hydro assures customers it has ‘more than enough’ power to weather the heatwave

Despite an increase of pressure on the Western grid, blackouts are not expected like in some U.S. states

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pilots say no reason to continue quarantines for vaccinated international travellers

Prime minister says Canada still trying to limit number of incoming tourists

Six United Way chapters around the province are merging into United Way B.C. (News Bulletin file photo)
6 United Way chapters merging around B.C.

Money raised in communities will stay in those communities, agency says

Val Litwin is the latest candidate to declare his bid for the B.C. Liberal leadership. (Litwin campaign video)
Political newcomer joins contest for B.C. Liberal leadership

Val Litwin a former B.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO

Most Read