Language and Reality: Who Made the World? – From Man Made Language – Dale Spender
Spender’s central contention: Our supposedly ‘objective’ reality is shaped by the categories which our language gives us to interpret it. The power holders in patriarchal societies have been able to embed sexist thinking into our language, which continues to influence the way we view the world.
- ‘language is a powerful determinant of reality’,
- ‘When there are a sexist language and sexist theories culturally available, the observation of reality is also likely to be sexist’
‘the potential to create a world in which they [existing power holders] are the central figures, while those who are not of their group are peripheral’ (through language)
- Male-as-norm, ‘nigger’, ’queer’
He/man becoming enshrined as the generic form ‘was neither insignificant or accidental’
- Men have had the opportunity to consciously embed their ‘superiority’ into the language
- C18th prescriptivist grammarian Kirkby argued for male as neutral – ‘more comprehensive’
- ‘making his subjective meanings the decreed reality’
- ‘the 1850 Act of Parliament which legally insisted that he stood for she’
- Engineered in exactly the same way that PC opponents rage against
‘today exerts a considerable influence over thought and reality by preserving the categories of male and minus male’
‘literally a man-made product which serves to construct and reinforce the divisions between the dominant and muted groups’
‘use of the [linguistic] symbol man is accompanied, not surprisingly, by an image of male’
- ‘a pseudo-generic’
- Allows us to eradicate women from our mental pictures of history
- ‘the visibility and primacy of males is supported’
- Studies (and jarring of sentences like ‘man as a mammal breastfeeds its young’) show that we think male, not neutral, when we hear ‘man’ – ‘the imagery which is operating’
‘For women to become visible, it is necessary that they become linguistically visible’
- Continual use reinforces negative stereotype (male-as-norm, male supremacy)
- Like ‘snowman’, ‘Oriental’
Language the Loaded Weapon by Dwight Bolinger (1980)
“the writer or speaker has to chose between perpetuating sexist language and making a mess of the grammar”
– ‘he or she’
– ‘himer/hiser’ (suggested by feminist, Ella Flagg Young 1912)
An Act of Parliament in 1850 decreed that ‘he’ should be used for both sexes in all parliamentary language because men were the ones with all the power. Our language now reflects this male ‘superiority’ where the pronoun ‘he’ is used when the sex of the subject is not known. It clearly shows that women are seen as on the sidelines (the ‘deviant’ sex) because the mental picture we get when ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ is used is male unless it is -supposedly- likely that the individual referred to is female e.g. ‘the nurse put on his hat’.
“Linguistic asymmetry is everywhere”
– ‘doctor’ for male ‘lady doctor’ for female
– ‘Mr’ for a male but women have two: ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’
The noncommittal ‘Mr’ implies that only men can be free agents in their sex lives. Language helps enact and transmit every type of inequality, and here women being treated as property is obvious as their title quickly reveals them marriageable or not.
Not politically correct as it reinforced the idea women are ‘objects’ rather than ‘subjects’ – the ‘property’ rather than the ‘possessor’. Same goes for the distinction between ‘actor’ and ‘actress’, these sex-marked nouns are not necessary and provide nothing besides gender stereotypes.
“The gun of sex-biased language may be rusty, but it is there, and the greatest danger is unawareness that it is a gun, and is loaded”
– 320 terms in English for ‘sexually promiscuous woman’
There are no male terms to match the contempt embodied in the words ‘hag’, ‘crone’ and witch’ for an old woman. They have sexual connotations too: ‘old and unattractive’, ‘old and sexually useless’. Not particularly PC as it reinforces the idea women are just objects of attractiveness that become useless when they no longer have good looks.
Verbal Hygiene – Deborah Cameron
The meaning of political correctness must be inferred from context.
- Does this imply that some words are okay to use in some situations but not others.
- g “nigga” – Not politically correct in most situations yet appears in music. Is this okay?
- The essay then goes on to mention that there is no one ‘standard’ definition of political correctness. It is very much judged by the individual.
- Is this a problem? How can it be changed?
[Opponents of PC would argue] The elimination of gender distinctions such as the suffix –ess actually makes the language less accurate.
- Hostess, stewardess – like French shows that a female is being spoken about.
- Host, Steward – original form – Somehow better/more dominant?
- Is this making our language ‘less efficient’ or more inclusive as a whole?
Whatever the ‘polite’ term is now, in a few years or decades will have acquired negative connotations that someone will feel compelled to propose a new one [word].
- Handicapped – disabled – physically challenged
- Language is constantly evolving and often very representative of the culture in which it is being used.
- Does this mean that PC will always be an ‘issue’?
Dwight Bolinger – Language the Loaded Weapon (1980)
Chapter 10: Power and deception
“A damaging truth most people will naturally evade. Short of telling a literal lie, Western society generally permits this with a clear conscience.”
- Leads to (excessive?) use of euphemism
- Such euphemisms can encounter criticism as they are often, essentially, mistruths or falsehoods e.g. Kellyanne Conway’s coinage, “alternative facts”, is a euphemism for “lie”. This term is now the subject of much ridicule and is not very politically correct due to its implications of lying and deceit.
“Traditional authority … secures itself by ritualising what it approves and tabooing what it does not”
- Bolinger speaks of the “privileged class” (conservatives/traditionalists) who are quick to place a taboo on ideas they consider to be threatening to their established social position, resulting in the coinage of derogatory terms like “snowflake” and “feminazi”.
- Ironically, whilst such terms are intended to ridicule or deprecate the groups of society (millennials and feminists) who are supposed to be the most prone to taking offence, this in itself is offensive to traditionalists and the coinage of such terms is a reaction to this.
“Loaded words can influence memory as well as perception”
- Language with heavy social implications can influence people’s attitudes in the long-term, not just their instant impressions.
- For example, the perpetuated use of gendered expressions in everyday life such as the concrete nouns, “chairman”, “fireman” and “policeman”, can make woman in these professions feel undervalued and promote the idea that these are inherently male jobs.
Guy Deutscher’s “Crying Whorf”
Man Up: This phrase isn’t seen as politically correct since it insinuates that there is something strong and stable about masculinity which everyone should strive for. Even if someone isn’t raised to believe that men are supposed to be strong, by using phrases like this throughout their lives they could subconsciously start to believe that men are inherently stronger than women, adopting a sexist view of the world. Russell claims that we “must be on our guard if our logic is not to lead to a false metaphysic,” such as the belief that masculinity and strength are correlated.
Snowman: Although it can be hard to see how words as innocent as “snowman” or “fireman” can be toxic, the incessant use of male pronouns in otherwise gender-neutral contexts can completely change someone’s worldview. Children are impressionable, and those who grow up believing that male pronouns and characteristics are default could end up believing that femininity is inferior which is a damaging idea for young girls in particular. This links to Whorf’s view that language “in itself is the shaper of ideas, the programme and guide for the individuals mental activity” because over time, this ‘male as norm’ belief can manifest itself into actual sexism.
African-American: Despite this being a commonly used adjective, it actually goes against all the rules of political correctness by not only suggesting that all black Americans are from Africa (when many, in fact, have no ties to the continent) but also by labelling them separately from white citizens, who are simply American. This treatment of black Americans as ‘others’ in the country can lead to the false narrative that they’re less deserving of their place in the country just because of their skin colour. Sapir calls this the “tyrannical hold that linguistic form has upon our orientation of the world,” because one simple adjective can lead to years of racial discrimination as seen in America today.
“Man up” a slang expression used to mean you should toughen up, don’t be weak; effectively act like a ‘man.’ But as Vice puts it, ‘stoicism, courage, discipline, bravery, the ability to rise to the occasion and strength, are not the sole property of men.’ The expression is a cousin to “growing a pair,” which has a similar meaning, and the female derogatory expression “being a pussy” i.e. you’re being weak. Sexist language has been considered an example of subtle sexism (Swim et al., 2004) and is known to contribute to gender stereotyping (e.g. Maass and Arcuri, 1996.) But this language impacts women more negatively than men, as men are in the position of power.
“Fireman” i.e. someone who puts out fires. However, the name suggests that its only men that have this job in the same way only men can be the “tax man” or “chairman.” It is not coincidence that these historically, and arguably still are, were jobs done by men, but these terms ‘belittle the feminist movement’ (Cameron 1995). Here “fireman” is the only one that appears to have moved into the 21st century with its general neutral equivalent “firefighter.” The generic use of masculine forms prevailing in many languages has far-reaching consequences in restricting the degree of female visibility (Ouellette and Wood 1998, Verplanken and Aarts 1999). This language disadvantages females as it means females may perceive a lack of fit between themselves and potential job prospect when masculine forms are used rather than gender inclusive terms.
“Minority” although used to refer to ethnicities in a country that is in fewer numbers compared to the dominant ethnicity, this term makes people cringe. Its root is minor, which means unimportant, insignificant, inconsequential, and inferior. Referring to an ethnicity said way keeps social thinking that “minorities” are indeed ‘minor,’ which is not the case. Dale Spender says that ‘language is such an influential force in shaping our world it is obvious that those who have the power to make the symbols and their meanings are in a privileged and highly advantageous position’ when referring to our male-dominated language but the quote is also applicable to whites’ power in the past and the power that still exists today. It is a term in the same boat as “ethnic” if one is referring to people or “race” which as a biological category, a genetic typology or a scientific reality does not exist, yet both are still used to distinguish between people who look different. ‘Euphemism is everyman’s sin. Dysphemism is more selective’ (Dwight Bolinger 1980), these terms can de-humanise groups of people.
“Ethnic Cleansing” It implies that the victim of genocide is inherently “dirty.” Why is it O.K. to linguistically side with the perpetrator?
“Rule of Thumb” — Originates from the old English dictum that a husband could not beat his wife or children with any stick wider than his thumb. (Not seen as politically incorrect though?)
The term ‘actor’ for both males and females in the profession is preferable to the distinction which ‘actress’ makes, given that, as Merkel, Maass, and Frommelt observed (looking at Italian), feminised terms imply lower competence to listeners than gender-inclusive and masculine descriptions of occupations. The associations of ‘actor’, being a serious profession, and part of a grand tradition, contrasts the image of a sexualised Hollywood figure which ‘actress’ evokes, and use of this gender-exclusive language perpetuates this negative stereotype (argue Sczesny, Moser and Wood) that men are the best actors, or, similarly, for example, that only a man can be qualified enough to be a ‘chairman’. Crystal deems the movement towards gender-inclusive language, pushed by feminism, one of the most successful examples of prescriptivism, but where the push to ‘control’ language is a means by which to aid equal valuation of men and women, as opposed to being bent on preserving arbitrary distinctions and preferences, we can see a meaningful difference between political correctness and prescriptivism.
In the same way, inherent in ‘sportsmanship’ are the assumptions that a) that men are best qualified to participate in sport, and b) that the practice of being a gracious loser and a fair player is somehow more achievable as a man, or characteristic of men. Whorf lays the groundwork for linguistic relativism, and even determinism, which is later taken up by Spender when she terms language a ‘shaper of ideas’, even a ‘trap’, when he comments that ‘we dissect nature along the lines laid down by our native languages’; that these lines cause us to associate good qualities with men exclusively is problematic, and only builds on and entrenches the prejudices and misconceptions which shape sexist gender roles.
Finally, the politically-incorrect ‘queer’ has come largely to be replaced with the more respectful ‘LGBT person’ because its connotations of oddness and difference, as McConnell and Fazio notes, ‘convey[…] meaning about the persons involved’. The neologistic initialism not only is more neutral, but detaches the term of reference from historic intolerant attitudes towards the gay community. Cameron asks whether ‘we control language or does it control us?’ which raises the question of the potential influence of such language use upon our thinking about certain groups, and whether removing derogatory nouns like ‘queer’, or ‘retard’ for mentally-ill people (which implies a backward-ness and lower value) really can shape how we perceive and conduct ourselves towards the people which they refer to.
The pejorative term “Faggot” is used as a generic insult, mainly aimed at gay men which is in itself is viewed as politically incorrected as there is no similar term to insult straight men or women. This is a clearly indicates a minority group in society who are further distinguished through terms such as “coming out” which Cameron may claim highlights the “democracies made up of diverse populations subscribing to a variety of beliefs and customs to preserve a common culture.” Which in turn also reinforces the belief that homosexuality is still, in the 21st century, separated from the traditional ‘expectations’.
Spender indicates that “We as humans have created the categories of male-as-norm and females as deviant.” through much of our language use, for example gendered language such as “man up”, “chairman” and “lady doctor”. All of which focus on male superiority and give the impression that women should strive to be like males who are clearly indicated to be in some way better than women, most notable “man up”, nobody is likely to tell a person to “woman up” never mind “person up” which in terms of Political Correctness would be the target statement.
Sexist language is often avoided as it is considered ‘politically incorrect’ however much sexist language is centred around women, with there being no male equivalent for “Whore, Bitch or Slag,” being just a few of the 200 derogatory terms used solely for women. If the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis of Linguistic Determination is to be believed then this language implies that women in the opinion of some who use such language are considered as less respectful of many. Pejorative language such as “Whore and Slag,” also have sexual connotations implying that women are more promiscuous than men further reinforcing the view that men should be ‘in control’ and women should be wives, just another attempt to restrict women.
Snowman – “representation of a human figure in compressed snow”
This term is politically incorrect due to its reference to snow figures as he. This, of which, subtly impacts the way we think, implying that all snow figures created are male. And so this generic masculinity form discourages gender neutrality and so leaves women at a disadvantage due to this type of language usage. In which, Sczesny, Moser and Wood (2014) states of how the root of such problem stems from the ideologies regarding women. Therefore, suggesting that masculinity is the superior gender characteristic. This can also be seen with words like “airmen” or “policemen”.
Oriental – “of, form, or characteristic of Asia, especially East Asia”
This term is considered offensive and so is politically incorrect by referring people, of a particular heritage, as something somewhat undesirable and are attached with further negative connotations. However, it liteally mean “orient, or of the East” This way of denoting people doesn’t necessarily degrade them. Within Dwight Bolinger (1980) Power and Deception theory, the concluded that “Euphemism is everyman’s sin. Dysphemism is more selective” Such words can “de-humanise” particular groups of people. His example, was referred to WW2 and how Hitler labelled Jews as “creatures” representing an image as them to vermin. Therefore, formed many opinions of Jews in the wrong way. In this case, all people from Asia, or Sian decent have been labelled as “Oriental” because of where they come from and who they are. Resulting, relatively similar, of negative opinions of this group of people.
Crazy – “mad, especially as manifested in wild or aggressive behaviour”
Yet, I also mean “extremely enthusiastic”. Now, this term is used to stigmatise those who are mentally ill, just like how “nigger” stigmatises black people. This blatant type of language creates the opinion that some people are “insane” all because they have an illness. This term can be highly offensive, when in reference to this. Kate Burridge states that “Offensiveness is never an intrinsic quality of the word, but the way it is used.” This type of pejorative language can stigmatise groups of peoples, just like others terms such as “bitch” or “nigger” This creates a negative perception of this group of people such “contamination” ranges on a scale and forms negative connotations.
A word which some may not consider to be politically correct is the qualitative adjective “manmade” which means produced or manufactured by people (as opposed to coming in to being naturally). This word is problematic as it generalises jobs in manufacturing as a male profession, potentially leading women in the field to feel undervalued compared to their male counterparts. “Manmade” is similar in its exclusionary nature to words such as the concrete nouns “fireman” and “policeman” which both imply that those professions are also inherently masculine. Such gendered terms can shape people’s attitudes negatively, reinforcing archaic gender roles. Sapir and Whorf’s hypothesising would support this evaluation, as Swim, Mallett and Stangor (2006) observed that their research “linked gender-exclusive language with sexist beliefs and attitudes”.
The use of “African-American” as either a noun or adjective to describe any and all black residents of the USA is not politically correct as it is a racist generalisation that all black Americans have an African identity, whereas most will have lived in the States their whole lives. Also, given the fact there is no equivalent term for white Americans (“European-American, for example) the term insinuates that to be American is to be white and so all black Americans are only half American. This is similar to the negative connotations of the adjective “half-cast”. Dwight Bolinger (1980) keenly emphasised how language has the power to influence people’s thoughts and attitudes, so going by this conclusion it would appear beneficial to replace the problematic term with another more neutral one. Sapir and Whorf’s hypothesising is also relevant here, as similarly to Bolinger they would argue that the perpetuated use of “African-American” would reinforce the negative attitudes already attached.
The noun “dyke” as a term for women attracted to other women would strike many as being utterly inappropriate to use in the 21st century. The term, although having been appropriated by the lesbian community, originated as an extremely derogatory term for the group and those on the outside would still seek to avoid using it unless they deliberately meant to cause offense. This example is similar in this way to others often deemed offensive by the LGBT community, such as “faggot” and “poof”. Opponents of political correctness would argue that these words should be able to be used by others if they can be used by the group themselves. But Deborah Cameron would point out, these opponents are only trying to avoid losing their “freedom to imagine that our linguistic choices are inconsequential” to political correctness.
“Lauded in the rightwing press as a critic of “snowflake culture” and “no-platforming”, Young is the perfect fit for the board: a figure who has forged his career by deliberately seeking to inflame liberal sensibilities and taking great pleasure in offending as many people as possible while guffawing about political correctness.”
The comments on this article are worth reading to see the way this debate is going these days.
Can you sum up 12 months in a word? At the end of 2017, it might be difficult to think beyond expletives, but a year in world events is also a year in the language used to describe them. And the contests over what language is appropriate can become events in themselves.
Was it appropriate, for example, to describe predatory male behaviour as “inappropriate”? This adjective saw a global upswing in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Various powerful men committed “inappropriate” acts, and it was also deemed “inappropriate” for Michael Gove to joke about them on the radio. “Inappropriate”, though, is the kind of word one uses to softly rebuke a child, so in this context it seemed rather a hedge, or an umbrella term with too wide a canopy. Better in many cases, people decided, to say “abuse” or “harassment”. If one can consider it a word in its own right, the hashtag “#MeToo”, used by women describing their own similar experiences, was the year’s most powerful lexical novelty.
Of the nominations for word of the year by the major dictionaries, Merriam-Webster’s was the most on point in this regard: they named “feminism”, searches for which had spiked in sync with news events throughout the year. People searched more for “feminism”, for example, when the White House aide Kellyanne Conway declared that she didn’t consider herself a feminist “in the classic sense”. (Whether she considers herself a feminist in the modern sense, or the postmodern sense, remains a mystery.) In 2017 there were 70% more searches on Merriam-Webster’s site for the meaning, classic or otherwise, of feminism than in the previous year. The very fact that people still have to look the word up demonstrates the continued necessity of the idea.
For its part, Oxford Dictionaries went in a rather eccentric direction by nominating as its word of the year, after 2016’s evergreen “post-truth”, the compound noun “youthquake”. This is defined as “a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”, and was used a bit this summer to describe the surprisingly high turnout of young voters to support Jeremy Corbyn’s triumphant loss in the general election. Later figures put youth turnout at 64%, as against 69% for the electorate as a whole, so this “youthquake” (a term that dates from the early 1960s and the invention of the teenager) was not quite so earth-shaking after all; more of a youth-tremor or youth-wobble.
Oxford’s shortlist for words of the year was more fun than its winner, containing the splendid “broflake”. Where “snowflake” is used by rightwing (or “alt-right”) men to ridicule the sensitivities of liberals, “broflake” turns the insult back at them, when they complain about women-only screenings of Wonder Woman or the casting of a woman as the lead in Doctor Who. The year’s most prominent broflake was James Damore, the programmer who wrote the notorious “Google memo”, which begins with a whine about the scourge of a “politically correct monoculture” within his company, and then purports to offer a completely dispassionate overview of why science says that women probably aren’t very good with computers, even though it was a woman (Grace Hopper) who invented the very idea of a computer programming language, as used by tech broflakes ever since.
Continuing dissatisfaction with the results of the 2016 US election led the website dictionary.com to choose “complicit” as its word of the year. It was looked up a lot in March, after a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Ivanka Trump, played by Scarlett Johansson, selling a perfume called Complicit, and then again after Ivanka herself said, when asked whether she and her husband were complicit in the actions of Donald: “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit.” Similarly, if being a murderer is wanting to rescue kittens, then I am a murderer.
Not far semantically from complicity is “collusion”, which the president spent the whole year denying: specifically, the idea that there had been any collusionbetween his campaign team and the Russians. Trump tweeted in October: “It is now commonly agreed after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!” It’s interesting to speculate as to why collusion, specifically, is the thing Trump has chosen to deny. It may be that, just as Bill Clinton operated with a private definition of “sexual relations” that did not include blowjobs, Trump is relying on a strict interpretation of “collusion” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “Secret agreement or understanding for purposes of trickery or fraud; underhand scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery.” Perhaps a loyal lexicographer has advised Trump that a secret pact with Russia would not be collusion if it was not for the purposes of trickery or fraud, but simply for the purposes of winning the election.
Lastly, among the major dictionaries, Collins stayed on the safest ground by choosing as its word (or phrase) of the year “fake news”. We had all heard about this already in 2016, of course, but mysteriously it hasn’t gone away. Its use, though, has subtly altered, at least at the tiny hands of Trump. Where he used to denounce particular stories as “fake news”, he now refers to the entire news media (save a few favourite outlets such as Fox) as “the fake news”. In other words, everything that counts as proper news is fake. This attempt to dismiss the authority of journalism as a whole has its resentful twin on the left, among those who dismiss the output of the “mainstream media” or MSM, and prefer to acquire their news from outlets set up by party activists or funded by Russia and libertarian billionaires. Of course, this column itself is part of the MSM, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Gender-neutral pronouns have been in the news recently. Last fall, a trans teacher in a Florida school was removed from their classroom for asking students to refer to them with the gender-neutral title Mx and the singular they. Two years earlier, when the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers make sure all students felt included by asking them, “What’s your pronoun?”, the state legislature closed the Diversity Office and banned the use of tax dollars to pay for gender-neutral pronouns.
It’s only fitting then to remember that the gender-neutral pronoun thon was Word of the Year in 1884. Or it would have been, had we been picking words of the year back then. 1884 was the year that Charles C. Converse announced that he had coined thon, a gender-neutral pronoun, by blending that and one. Thon could refer both to men and women, and it would come in handy in cases where gender is unknown, or irrelevant, or where it needs to be concealed (C. C. Converse, “A New Pronoun.” The Critic, Aug. 2, 1884, p. 55).
Thon wasn’t the first gender-neutral pronoun—earlier examples include ou, a dialect word suggested by the Scottish economist James Anderson in 1792; it, suggested by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1808; and the pronouns ne and hiser, suggested anonymously around 1850. And it was far from the last. 1884 saw another iteration of hiser, along with ip, se, hi, and le. And later years brought id, ze, jhe, per, E, tey and more than 100 more.
Converse, an attorney and hymn-writer from Erie, PA (he was known for writing “What a friend we have in Jesus”), recommends his coinage because it fills three important requirements for a new word: it communicates our thoughts; it does so accurately; and it does so “with despatch.” And Converse feels that his coinage fits the modern aerodynamic spirit of 1884: “The philological atmosphere is full of winged words, the aim, in the making of them, is a minimum of word-body with a maximum of flying power.” Thon avoids the “hideous solecism” of singular they, and the awkward he or she. And Converse is convinced that his pronoun can succeed because it combines two familiar words rather than a new, strange, and arbitrary sign.
Converse may have coined thon as early as 1858, after trying other combinations of words that didn’t do the trick, but he didn’t begin promoting thon until 1884, when it prompted much discussion in newspapers and magazines. A few doubters worried that thon would be confused with thou (thou was hardly a common word) and one thought that one would be a better way to fill in the blank in a sentence like “Everyone loves ______’s mother.” Some had better suggestions, like hi, hes, hem (the potential for confusing these with he, his, and him seems greater than confusing thon with the archaic thou). And one even defended singular they, on the analogy of singular you, though most people condemned it as an error.
But a number of language experts did praise thon. The well-known philologist Francis A. March said, “It seems to me a very happy suggestion. I hope that it may be received favorably and in due time adopted.” Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton wrote that he liked the word, but wasn’t sure the kids would dance to it:
Such a pronoun would undoubtedly be a convenience, did it exist. The difficulty lies in its being yours. All forms of speech have grown, and I do not recall an instance of the use by a civilized race of any word, not a noun or a verb, deliberately invented by a philologer, however ingenious.
And Merrill Edward Gates, president of Rutgers and a friend of Converse, even took thon for a test drive:
We have amused and interested ourselves by often using it in the family, in conversation. Beyond controversy, it is a great convenience. . . . If thon is at once received, Mr. Converse will occupy the distinguished and almost unique position of the living father of a new Saxon word for our Anglo-Saxon-English-sentence-building tongue. I wish thon success.
One enemy of thon called Converse a “grammatical crank”; objected that thon was unnecessary; and warned that the new pronoun would drastically increase the cost of already overpriced schoolbooks: students would need new grammars, spellers, geographies, and arithmetics—even blank copy books would be affected. This critic went on to suggest, instead of introducing a new English pronoun, why not export thon to France, “where they have no neuter gender.” Plus thon represents the thin edge of the pronominal wedge, as the writer feared it would only lead to the reintroduction of thee, thou, and thine: “America would become a nation of Quakers as to speech, without their many virtues.” Their recommendation? “Shoot the thon!”
On a more optimistic note, thon prompted someone who signed thonself only “Z.,” to ask for another badly-needed word, a title by which a man may address a “lady whom he knows only by reputation”—that is to say, a marriage-neutral alternative to Miss and Mrs. That call would be answered by Ms., which appeared as early as 1901.
In the years that followed, thon remained new and strange, though occasionally a language reformer tried using it. In 1895, Henry Williams introduced thon as a new word in a revised edition of his college textbook, Outlines of Psychology (3e), giving the example, “Every student should acquaint thonself* with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge.” Williams explained in a note,
* As the English language lacks a pronoun for the third person, singular number, common gender, the author hopes he will be pardoned for using the above new word. He also hopes the word will soon become euphonious to many a student in English. Declined: Nominative, thon; possessive, thons; objective, thon; compound, nominative and objective, thonself.
But in a response to the announcement of Williams’ new book, Eugene Lewis objected that thon, “so warmly welcomed by the professors,” has not succeeded: in the decade between the introduction of the new pronoun by Converse and the publication of Williams’ textbook, “I have neither heard nor seen it used.” Lewis argued that “our common language is the outcome of our daily needs, rather than the result of a philologist’s labors in his study.”
Thon could not have been 1884 Word of the Year based on dictionary look-ups, since thon didn’t appear in a dictionary until the first Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language (Vol. II, 1897), which credits Converse with coining the word in 1858. Here’s what you’d find if you looked thon up in your Funk and Wagnalls:
thon [THON’s, poss.; THON, obj.] That one; he, she, or it; a pronoun of the 3d person, common gender, a contracted and solidified form of that one, proposed in 1858 by Charles Crozat Converse, of Erie, Pennsylvania, as a substitute in cases where the use of a restrictive pronoun involves either inaccuracy or obscurity, or its non-employment necessitates awkward repetition. The following examples, first as ordinarily written and afterward with the substitution of the genderless pronoun, illustrate the grammatical deficiencies of the English language in this particular and the proposed method of removal: “If Harry or his wife comes, I will be on hand to meet him or her (or whichever appears).” “Each pupil must learn his or her own lesson.” With the substitution of thon: “If Harry or his wife comes, I will be on hand to meet thon (i.e., that one who comes).” “Each pupil must learn thon’s lesson (i.e., his or her own).”
Thon was picked up by Merriam-Webster’s Second New International Dictionary (1934) as well, though it did not appear in the first New International Dictionary edition of 1909, and it was dropped in Webster’s Third (1961). The Second identified thon (possessive, thon’s) as a contraction of that one and defined it simply as, “A proposed genderless pronoun of the third person.”
Though most users tried thon and then abandoned it, a few die hards held on to thon well into the twentieth century: from the 1950s to the 1970s, the organist and critic Caldwell Titcomb (1927-2011) campaigned to spread the word. Titcomb may have sounded thon’s last hurrah in 1978, when he reminded the New York Times’ Tom Wicker that thon was still a desirable option more than a century after it was coined. After that, thon went dark, replaced by the hipper gender-neutral coinages of the day.
Today when we think of nonbinary pronouns, we think of xe, hir, ze, and they. Some of these are new, but singular they goes back to the 14th century. Unlike hiser, thon, and company, singular they arose naturally, and it’s no longer generally condemned as an error. In fact, singular they was Word of the Year in 2015. But as we contemplate the dismal offerings for 2017 Word of the Year—words that reflect the dismal year that was—it can’t hurt to remember that the optimistic, aerodynamic thon was Word of the Year way back in 1884, one of the bright spots in the last year of Chester A. Arthur’s presidency. Or at least it should have been.