When I gave birth to #1 son, husband and I were beyond broke. He’d quit his job so he could stay home and look after me through a bad case of pre-eclampsia and this landed his finding-jobs attempts right in the middle of the 91 jobs depression which seemed to make all programming jobs vanish from Charlotte, NC where we then lived. We paid our Visa with our Mastercard for six months until he found another job. Which when you have a brand-new-infant born under COBRA, for whose complicated birth you owe around 20 thousand dollars is … scary. Took us three years to pay off the baby (amid jokes he’d be repossessed of course) as well as the financial damage of that time.
Which is why when #1 son was three months old, and I got an invitation to attend a – what the heck did they call it? — paid survey session (I think) on baby naming and why we’d named our baby what we had, I jumped at it. It netted us $50 (I think) with which we bought toilet paper and rice if I remember correctly.
For all that, I think they got precious little from me. When they asked my baby’s name and I told them “Robert Anson” the entire group (100 parents, plus interviewers) stared at me in shock. They asked, hesitantly “Is he named after a grandfather?” and I thought furiously how to explain, then said, “Yeah. Let’s go with that.” After which they ignored me.
I was the discordant note in a perfect chorus up till then, though. I don’t know what some marketing company wished to know about baby-naming habits, but I’m sure the resulting end was that they were delivered a page that said in really big letters: Everyone is trying to make their kid different by being like everyone else.
Because I sat there through a couple of ours of outlandish names I no longer remember, save a likely blond (her parents were) named Rwanda (her parents seemed quite unaware it was a country, and thought it was a creative spelling of Rhonda), a weirdly spelled Genesis, where the parents didn’t know this was a book of the Bible, and the truly amazingly spelled Aeaehraeon (pronounced Aaron.)
And every time the parents were asked why they’d named the child some kind of spelling abortion, they said: “I want him/her to be unique.”
Because I am a horrible person – who studied languages (and language) in my misspent youth – I kept thinking “Brother (or sister) if that’s your child’s only possible claim to uniqueness, he/she’s going to be a sad little clone.”
But by then I was already familiar with people’s strange inability to tell label and object apart. When I hit the US in ’85, writing books were already passionately concerned with inclusive language, which mostly consisted of writing he/she a lot in every sentence. Because suddenly “he” which had been used from time immemorial to specify a person of unknown sex had to specify that it could also refer to a woman, otherwise it was evil/bad/non-inclusive.
I remember my poor Fullbright exchange professor of American Literature, in 1983 letting something slip about “the poet, he” when speaking in general, then freezing like a deer in the headlights, staring in horror at a classroom of 31 (Portuguese) women, who had no clue what had spooked him.
Then he started apologizing for using “he” when it should be “he or she” and we looked at each other in shock. Finally, one of us (it’s been a long time. Might have been me, but I don’t think so) said: “But ‘he’ is the pronoun for unspecified gender in most Indo-European languages.” And the rest of the class nodded. I think that man had a grin frozen on his face for six months.
This confusion has stayed with me. Why is it so important to have the word specify “he or she”? Most of us know that poets, say, can be either. And no, most of us don’t set our expectations in life according to grammar. Holy heck, there’s female poets studied in college.
At the same time, for whatever reason, it’s a bad thing to use the female name of a profession, because apparently males and females perform a job in exactly the same way.
So, we can no longer say poetess (where arguably, and I could argue, male and female modes of doing the job are quite different) and not even actress, where the body is an integral part of the job, and therefore of the parts one can take, but must subsume females and males together into poet and actor.
All of which has alternately annoyed me and amused me (I have a sick sense of humor) for over three decades.
The latest manifestation of “I want to be unique” and “but this symbol/abstraction doesn’t describe me perfectly” is pronouns.
Dear Lord. The Pronouns. Please make the pronouns stop. Xir, Xim, Xis, Zyr, Zim, Zis, e, eim, eis….. The horror, the horror, make it stop.
But it’s the reaction of the people employing these – ah… — “unique” pronouns to your failing to use them that’s the saddest or the funniest if you have a really sick sense of humor (represent!) or perhaps the most revelatory.
They act as though by not using their really ultra-special pronoun you had erased them personally. They’ll tell you you “misgendered” them and this is apparently a capital offense or nearly so.
Look, no one likes to be called something they’re not. In fact, one of my constant sources of embarrassment, when people give me weird gifts, is wondering what I might have done to cause them to think I like… whatever it is, ranging from gaudy clothes to strange spices. (Most of the time it turns out that people either fastened on something I said in passing as meaning something else, or they are gratifying what they think must be my culture of birth. But that’s not important right now.)
However, allow me to digress briefly into the nature of language: language is that which humans use to communicate with each other. As anyone who has studied language will tell you, it cannot exist without some degree of abstraction. When you say “table” for instance you have a vaguely flat surface with a number of legs between three and six in your head. You don’t have to specify which type of table to be correct. If I say “I put it on the table” and there’s only one table in the room, I’ve served my communication purpose. I don’t have to say “the coffee table with the marble top and six legs, including one that has been chewed by the dog.”
The specifications come if there’s any danger of confusion. So if there are two tables in the room, I’ll say “I put it on the dining table” (a constant source of confusion in my family, since we’re blessed with both a dining room and a breakfast room which we mostly use for dining.)
Tables not being sentient, we, fortunately, don’t have to fear offending them, and no table ever lobbied for a new term – perhaps Wable – for tables that have wheels at the end of their legs, tables that have only two legs because one end is supposed to be propped up, or tables that have more than six legs, for some bizarre reason.
And yet, ninety-nine percent of the time, if you say “I put it on the table” and there’s only one table present, the person you’re addressing can guess what you’re talking about, even should the table you’re referring to be really, really weird. (The weirdest I’ve seen had sculpted elephants rising from the middle, leaving only about a two-foot border around them to be actually called a table. My older son wants that table. He keeps tabs on it to make sure no one has bought that table. He likes elephants. Yes, he calls it a table.)
Now gender, or if you prefer sex, is also something that humans instinctively divide into two categories. No, there is absolutely no point in yelling that we’re in a post-binary society. This is actually wired into the backbrain, the monkey brain that kept your ancestors safe. When you see a person, coming closer, you automatically classify them, whether you want to or not. And if you can’t, it makes you slightly uncomfortable. That’s because in the ape-band you had radically different ways of interacting with strange males and with strange females. And doing the wrong one could get you killed.
Now there are people who through an accident of birth or choice are genuinely unclassifiable. Because one doesn’t like to offend, one tries very, very hard not to refer to them as either, but sometimes one slips. Even when one doesn’t want to offend and hears “just give it to her” or “tell him about it” escape one’s lips, and one feels just a little bit sorry.
Sane people who know they fit in that spectrum, can then choose to correct you – if they’re smart with a smile – or ignore it. And let me emphasize that most adults who fit that spectrum would know. If it’s a casual thing – last time this happened was a store cashier – they probably won’t explain. If it’s – say – the significant other of a friend, they might explain or just roll their eyes and say “I get that all the time.”
Let me also point out that the ape brain responds to signals that the conscious brain isn’t aware of, and it might be posture or gestures or whatever. For reasons I never understood I was often called “sir” even while I was slim, generally well endowed in the chestal (totally a word) area and soft featured. I suspect it had something to do with bearing and movements relating to my being brought up abroad because it has actually lessened with age (even though arguably a woman of fifty-five is far more androgynous than a woman of 22.) This often happened while I was wearing a dress. It happened at least twice while I was pregnant.
Did I lose my mind and start screaming at the culprits? No. I did keep a running tally and report it to my husband with much glee because I have a sick sense of humor. But mostly, in the moment, I ignored it. When a stranger said “excuse me, sir” I moved aside. When I asked directions and an employee said, “It’s back there, sir.” I thanked them and went back there. I mean, the person might or might not feel embarrassed when they realized what they have said, but … what is the purpose of rubbing their faces in it, precisely? They’re strangers and they meant no harm.
Curiously, the people who rejoice in Zyr or xir or Zer or eim or whatever the truly “unique” made up pronoun is, are less forgiving. Call a Zir Zer or heaven forbid he or she, and you are setting yourself up for a furious bout of screaming and accusations of deliberate “aggression.” If you meet someone really committed to his/her/zir/xyr/eim/maryhadalittlelamb pronoun you might be accused of erasing them by using the wrong pronoun.
This is completely insane for various reasons:
Language is communication. When you say our pronoun is zyr, how does that differ from a xir, or a eim or a whateverthehellitis? Do I have a picture, i.e. a level of abstraction for each of those in my mind? No? Then what good is that word? If all a word means is you, then use your given name (look, if it’s not unique enough, you can always change it.) Yes, it gets tedious, but at least it doesn’t make me memorize sounds for which you are the only referent.
Words aren’t the thing. 99.9 of people fall, by looks alone – I don’t care about how you express it, the pronouns are a convenient way for someone to say “give her the bag” or “pay him.” This has nothing to do with how you feel – into one or the other broad binary categories. Those are the ones people will default to. If people can’t guess at either, they’ll wave vaguely or make circumlocutions “give the cashier the bag, honey” or the like.
Yes, so you don’t feel you fit either male or female. I suggest in most cases, you’ve been misinformed as to what male and female actually are. You don’t have to like pastel colors and dresses and shoes to be female. You don’t have to like beer, sports and cars to be male. Yes, that’s the way these things tend to fall, statistically, but statistics aren’t individual. I know people of both sexes who like things typically of the other sex, without being any less male or female. Yes, there are intersex individuals, but those are fairly rare as adults. (My son informs me ambiguous genitals are actually far more common at birth than we think. I’m no longer sure what percentage he cited. I want to say something like 3%. But almost all of them resolve within five years.)
I’m perfectly fine with those intersex individuals – most of whom, btw, end up identifying as either male or female, just to get through life without a lot of explanations, and the only one I know for sure was an elderly man in the village where I grew up, normally referred to as “Salvoseja” (may he be saved. Yes, how insensitive) – calling themselves whichever one they prefer.
What if they prefer neither? Well, as it so happens, there is already a genderless pronoun in English. It.
Yes, I can hear the screaming now, because it applies to “animals and objects.” Well, sort of. Babies and pre-verbal children, at that age when you can’t tell which they are are also often called “it.”
At any rate, the connotations of the word “it” can be changed. It is at least a known word, with known declensions, and anyone who knows English knows how to use it. It, its, itself. I have no objection to a campaign that says “it can be applied to people too” and “respect the feelings of intersex individuals.” They are a tiny minority, but sure. If being called by an indeterminate pronoun makes them happy, I’ll try, at least once they’ve stated it. (Always barring my making slips because they look like a he or a she, and because I’m only human.)
Xyr zir and e and eim are not going to happen, however. Why not? Because they’re not words. Not in the way language works. There is no agreed upon “neuter pronoun for a person who is neither male nor female.” Possibly because in the past intersex individuals were too busy surviving to spend much time getting neurotic about pronouns. All those strangely spelled, hard to remember references are designations with no level of abstraction, usually referring only to that one individual.
If I say “give zyr the bag” unless the person I’m addressing has memorized the pronouns for everyone in the group, or zyr is – helpfully – wearing a t-shirt that says “call me zyr” this will not lead to communication but only to confusion. Someone who is, say, an ESL speaker, will assume that someone in the group is named Zyr. Which in a way is correct. People are naming themselves ‘unique’ things and attempting to stand out that way.
Despite the many universities and even towns and – has Canada done this yet – making it a crime to misgender someone, despite how many people have conniptions and dying duck fits because you’re not using their very own invented word to refer to their gender, these various words not only will never take but will be looked at in the future as a sign that we live in the crazy years. Why?
Because Jordan Peterson is right: you can’t compel speech. If you look like a woman, a lot of people, particularly strangers and casual acquaintances, are going to call you “she”. Ditto if you look like a man. And no one is going to call you a made up pronoun other than those people who are afraid of your rudeness and what they (trust me) will privately consider your insanity.
You also can’t compel people’s memory. I have a truly damnable memory for names. Or at least for attaching the right name to the right face. Not only will I find myself in the middle of a conversation with someone I know I’ve met a dozen times, and pray inwardly I’m not required to call them by their name; I also have a tendency to call people by the name of people from my childhood that my brain had decided they resemble. I once spent an entire weekend seminary calling a man named Chris Carlos. Because he resembled my brother’s friend named Carlos (who had then been dead ten years, btw.) When I realized I’d done it, I apologized (and the first time I explained) and he was a fairly good sport about it, because it was my problem not his. And my calling him Carlos did not make him any less of a Chris.
Imagine now that I’m compelled, on pain of being called a bigot, to memorize individual pronouns along with those individual names. It’s never going to happen. And I’m not the only one with this problem.
Also, does my calling you she make you any less a he? Does my calling you he or she force you to be any less ambiguous? No one is going to tackle you and make you play football just because you call yourself “he.” No one is going to give you a test on your knowledge of fashion just because you call yourself a “she.” And if you want to call yourself an “it” and lecture us on how “it” can be a person, go for … well… it. I’ll try to remember.
But I’m not going to use any crazy, personal made-up pronouns.
Your parents were wrong. Misspelling your name, or naming you a random assemblage of syllables, or even giving yourself a random sound as a pronoun is not in fact what makes you unique. It certainly shouldn’t be the only thing that you’re proud of.
A person who has sources of self-worth, even if those are – just – being able to earn his living and survive in the world doesn’t worry too much about what pronoun others use for him, or even her.
If the only thing that makes zyr unique is eim’s pronouns, xer has more problems than some stranger using the wrong pronoun.