The Curmudgeon’s Language Crisis

The holiday weekend is still causing a lack of news — our kind of news — so we’re going to stray way off topic. We have been made aware that our writing is — in the opinion of some — insensitive regarding gender issues.

We almost never discuss such things — well, sometimes, as in Hambo and the Rainbow. But even there, although ol’ Hambo was in a frenzy, we said:

The only private life we’re interested in is our own, and we don’t care what other people do — as long as it’s done privately with consenting adults.

Anyway, we wouldn’t want our writing to offend anyone because of our indifference to such matters. As we have declared in the past — for example, in Renaming the Retard-o-Tron™ — your Curmudgeon is a non-judgmental, sensitive, compassionate, caring-sharing evolutionist, with ooey-gooey feelings and a touchy-feely attitude. We embrace diversity and practice togetherness. We care for the planet. We feel your pain. We are At One with all things. Our fondest hope is that we’ll all get along and everything will be nicey-nicey and fuzzy-wuzzy. That is our Curmudgeonly statement of principle, to which we courageously adhere — except when it might give offense.

So let’s talk about language and gender. Undoubtedly, hundreds — maybe thousands — of doctoral dissertations in social science have been devoted to this issue. Wikipedia has an extensive discussion of the matter — see Third-person pronoun.

Let us consider an everyday situation, such as the sentence: “The student knows what he should do.” Or this one: “Each student knows what is expected of him.” Although those words (“he” and “him”) traditionally have been used to indicate either gender when implied by the context, there are those who are offended by the masculine pronouns “he” and “him.” Nowadays such usage is denounced as sexist and discriminatory. Your Curmudgeon has no wish to offend, so we are mulling over some alternatives.

Fortunately, “they” is gender neutral for plural situations, so the problem is only with singular pronouns. Here are a few artificial words we’ve thinking about using to substitute for “he” and “him” in the foregoing example.

HOSOHOH: (pronounced ho-so-ho), initials for He or She or Him or Her

MOFOO: (pronounced moe-foo), initials for Male or Female or Other

MOFOEON: (pronounced moe-fo-ee-on), initials for Male or Female or Either or None

AGON: initials for Any Gender or None

AGSOPON: (pronounced ag-sop-on), initials for Any Gender, Singular or Plural or None

HAOS: (pronounced like chaos), initials for He and or She

HOSOB: initials for He or She or Both

HOSOBON: (pronounced hoss-o-bon), initials for He or She or Both or Neither

It is obvious to us that the use of any of those constructs would be bizarre, yet that seems to be what sensitivity requires. Or are we getting carried away here? Your advice will be appreciated.

Copyright © 2018. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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20 responses to “The Curmudgeon’s Language Crisis

  1. “They” is available, and is clearly better than any of those ugly constructions.
    In the case of the “intelligent creators”, where we do not know the number (n>=0) let alone any grammatical gender for the term, there is no reason to avoid using “they”.

  2. TomS says:

    “They” is available, and is clearly better than any of those ugly constructions.

    I should think an individual would be offended if MOFOO were referred to in the plural.

  3. Carried away. Stick with enlightenment issues.

    Transgender psychology is a serious issue in that many teenage suicides are precipitated by a teen’s mixed or confused thoughts regarding his or her sexuality. If for no other reason, we must respect and accept all for who they are and who they feel they are.

    That said, it would help greatly if we had a non-gendered singular pronoun for general use where we have traditionally been using he, him, or his for either/or male or female. For now, we only have “they”, which is grammatically incorrect or confusing when used for the singular.

    Of course, we can always refer to “the child”, “the youth”, “the student”, “the employee”, “the adult”, “the person”, etc. when gender is either unknown or unspecified. Awkward and doesn’t work in all situations, but can be doable.

  4. SC:
    “I should think an individual would be offended if MOFOO were referred to in the plural.”

    Not if it’s their choice. (Aside — we do it all the time. Notice that I wrote “their choice”, not “his or her choice, or “the person’s choice.”) My teenage grandson has a close friend who is transgender. The friend asks to be referred to as “they”. Yes, it’s awkward and confusing, but it is “their” choice. We respect it. It does cause confusion when selecting the proper form of a verb to use in a sentence (i.e., “Is they going to the movie with you?”), but “their” friends become accustomed and adapt.

    But yes, we do need a simple, accepted set of singular, non-gendered pronouns to use when the gender is unspecified or unknown where we would otherwise use he, she, him, her, his, or hers.

    At least English is not like French, where everything has a gender, and is referred to as either “le” or “la”. (just one of the difficulties I had trying to learn French.)

  5. I advocate a passive aggressive approach.
    Consider: SHIOT for She He It Or They.
    Pronunciation dependent on level of frustration with the offended.
    Everybody wins, they get their alternative pronoun (with the female first even!) and the pronunciation conveys the essence of a dissenting opinion.

  6. Tom B says: “I advocate a passive aggressive approach.”

    Another possibility is MOFO, meaning male or female or …

  7. RSG:
    I’ve been in these discussion before and I always come out a bit confused. I’m not sure about everyone else, but I only use personal pronouns in third party situations. I would never refer to someone as he/she/it/they in direct conversation. If I’m talking to you or about you in your presence I’d use your name as I expect others do as well. An exception would be an accident scene. That guy ran into me, she blew the stop sign….

    To me, referring to someone by a pronoun in their presence is insulting. To be clear, by presence I also include direct and indirect conversation. I would not refer to you or SC as he/she/they in this forum, although I did abbreviate your name.

    That leaves pronoun use for third part discussions about someone who isn’t there and is not party to the conversation. In that instance I don’t understand why it matters what pronoun is used.

    This isn’t to endorse bullying, something many of us have been involved with in one form or another and can have dire consequences.

    I welcome thoughts as to why this is an issue, bullying aside.

  8. Paul S – basically agree, but there are some conversations that arise when a person would not know the name of a person present, e.g. “Is she with you?” And a polite response might be “Yes, they are with me” which should signal the questioner the preferred pronoun. We have a good-looking 9 yo grandson who has nice long blond hair, long eye-lashes, etc. and often gets referred to as a female [he takes it all in stride], so when someone asks something like “How old is she?”, I simply say “he is 10”. The best one from a couple of days ago was “Wow, she looks like Dakota Fanning”. I said “Yes he does”, and he said “Who is Dakota Fanning.” 🙂

  9. “Another possibility is MOFO”
    I like it. Also considered adding the prefix BUL (Both Undecided Lacking) to the SHIOT suggestion but that is probably over doing it.

  10. Douglas E. Yes, there are exceptions. A correction and a name is all that’s needed to prevent a future faux pas.
    Who’s Dakota Fanning, that’s as good as my son asking me to play some of those big CDs, and that was 20 years ago. Kids…….

  11. Dave Luckett

    The short takeaway on the question is that the language is not altered by fiat. It evolves. Even languages like French, overwhelmingly spoken in one nation alone, cannot be controlled by the decrees of an Academy, much as the members of that academy might wish to do it. And as for English, forget it.

    If a consensus of English speakers – probably, English speakers in one region, to start with – accept the first new pronouns to enter the language since “it”, and start to use them, they will be used. Otherwise, not. All that individuals will achieve by attempting to mandate their use is a reiteration of the Babel effect – they won’t be understood, and in the process will help to fragment the language. However imperfect English might be, it is at least a most useful form of communication, simply because of the number who speak it as a lingua franca, if not as a first language. The last thing anybody of goodwill should want to do is to erect further barriers to comprehension between people.

    However much it used to be frowned on by grammarians who were really applying the rules of Latin, “they” “their” and “them” are perfectly well understood to be all-inclusive pronouns, where the subject is singular. Insisting on some novel construction smacks to me of a belief that one is special, and by that very fact, privileged.

  12. Charles Deetz ;)

    If only the designer, blessed be he, had designed our language to fit our gender range. Instead we have been forced to fit our genders to our language. Its an interesting question, the tongue-in-cheek and thoughtful replies are all appreciated. At least with gay marriage we have choices of pronouns: partner, spouse, significant other. On one of my very liberal podcasts, Cognitive Dissonance, admits struggling with proper LGBTQ language sometimes. A transgender guess told them, ‘well, just ask’, a way to simple solution.

  13. “The holiday weekend is still causing a lack of news ”
    Fortunately the two creacrappers you so generously allow to comment compensate nicely.

    “Our fondest hope is that we’ll all get along”
    Which has been clear to me since quite a while and also why I call you “our dear SC”, despite our political disagreements. We both for instance accept the observation that way too many marxists don’t have that hope – on the contrary.

    “Your advice will be appreciated.”
    You may have noticed that I use he/she but if you will decide on something else I will probably join you (at least on your blog). Of course this is a cop out, but I have little interest in semantic problems.

  14. BTW about the French language, Wikipedia says that 40% of the speakers of French are in Europe, which includes Belgium and Switzerland.

  15. Imo, TomS and Dave Luckett nailed it — there is no reason to look beyond they, them, their and (by extension) themself for third person singular gender neutral pronouns.

    (Note the apparently paradoxical mixed number of the reflexive — I like it).

  16. @My Mellifluous Curmudgeon

    That third paragraph (“Anyway, we wouldn’t . . . “) is a true linguistic gem, well worthy of immediate archiving. I regret not having been here its first time around.

    Belated Kudos. Mazeltov!

  17. @Random
    I liked that paragraph too. Proves how “woke” our Curmudgeon is.

  18. I find this interesting about the use of the word “they” in English:
    “They” is a borrowing from Norse and did not completely replace the native word as the 3rd person plural pronoun until the 15th century. Meanwhile, it had already had also been used as a 3rd person singular pronoun. See the Wikipedia article “Singular they”.

  19. I have been using he/she and him/her which are no less cumbersome than the neologisms offered. But this “issue” has been around for a very long time. A newer concern for me is the advocacy for truly personal pronouns, that is each and everyone of us having a preferred set of pronouns to use when referring to he/she/it. How the heck are we supposed to remember such a list for everyone of our acquaintances? Not only does that trouble me but pronouns are shortcuts, designed to make references easier and clearer and this makes them, what, a nightmare of offense in waiting?

  20. What is a reasonable solution for arbitrary pronoun usage? Coin operated name tag vending machines. People that feel the need can create an easy to read name tag that lets them express their true feelings about their non binary fluidity and others can have the opportunity to confirm they are spot on. I’d avoid the use of such things if your intent is to keep others on thin ice though.