They is Me!
By Patrick F. Cannon
To the continuing consternation of the French, English long ago overtook it as the most internationally spoken language. Among many reasons for this, it seems to me, is its flexibility. Unlike French, whose dictionary is controlled by the Académie Francaise, there is no official body to pass judgement on proposed new words. The Oxford English Dictionary, although highly respected, is not an official authority. The latest edition of this 20 volume collection includes 176,476 words in current use with full definitions; and 47,156 obsolete ones. But its compilers are constantly looking at new words that could be added.
While English is a Germanic language, it happily is home to words from many others, including French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi – well, you get the idea. Often, we are unaware of their derivation. I doubt that many people who live in them know that “bungalow” comes from Hindi, for example. But it’s so ingrained in the language that it really doesn’t matter.
What does matter is structure and convention. Just as in any language, the words only make sense if they are arranged in a way that everyone can understand. I don’t believe it’s done anymore, but I spent countless hours at the blackboard diagramming sentences under the steely gaze of a nun. The basic structure is “subject, predicate, object.” Add to that the adjectives, adverbs, independent and dependent clauses, tenses, pronouns – all of which can be confusing to the poor soul trying to learn English, but seem to make perfect sense to us.
Hitherto, words had established meanings, although many had more than one. Those 176,476 words in the Oxford actually swell to more than 600,000 when the various meanings are included. But some words, personal pronouns in this case, have had settled meanings for hundreds of years, although spellings and some forms have changed over time.
Not anymore. A few days ago, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about a woman on the staff of a local museum who asked to be described as “they” instead of “her.” This is apparently becoming more common, as more and more people decide that they either encompass both sexes or none at all, or perhaps haven’t yet made up their minds either way.
The newspaper, of course, complied, since they seem to have an utter horror of offending even persons who probably don’t read newspapers in the first place. This policy follows along from the policy they established some years ago to identify persons by the sex they claimed to be rather than the sex they actually were. In many states, you can even change your birth certificate – an official document – if you disagree with the gender you were “assigned” at birth.
Pity the poor “assigners.” They counted upon the evidence of their eyes, and the reality of biology, to check the male or female box. There is an essential difference, it seems to me, between tolerance and belief. If a male person decides to live as a female, he is doing nothing that hasn’t been done throughout history. And vice versa, of course. But the apparently unpalatable fact is that you can’t change your sex, even if you have what is now called gender reassignment surgery.
As with so many matters of “political correctness,” I suppose we’ll just have to accept this as one of the many absurdities that the existentialists like me must embrace. It reminds me of the former comic strip hero Pogo’s (look him up) famous comment (and I paraphrase): “We have met the enemy, and they is me.”
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon