Upon Whose Authority?
By Patrick F. Cannon
I have often wondered just who makes these decisions. Is it some government agency? Or the Associated Press? Perhaps it’s the University of Chicago and the folks who do their famous Style Book. Or could it be one of the eminent dictionary publishers, like Oxford University or our own Merriam-Webster? In France, it would certainly be the Académie Francaise, but the English language has no such authority.
Someone must be in charge, when suddenly an individual person demands to be referred to with the pronoun “they” — when it’s clear they are demonstrably either male or female – and the news media and many others immediately comply. Just the other day, in the Chicago Tribune, the subject of a front-page article was a single mother “who identifies as pansexual, bisexual, queer,” and “whose pronouns are she/they.”
Since I wasn’t yet familiar with the term “pansexual,” I looked it up and discovered it was someone who was attracted to anyone, including (but presumably not limited to) straight men and women; gay men and lesbians; bisexuals; transgender people of both sexes; queers; and folks not interested in sex with anyone. Admittedly, I’m not entirely up to date on these things, but would not “pansexual” include “bisexual,” making the latter superfluous?
Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too much of a stickler these days. When you point out that nearly 100 percent of humans are unambiguously born male or female, you risk being considered hopelessly unwoke. The younger generations are also surprised when they discover that they didn’t invent the numerous ways in which humans express their sexuality. They just invented new words to describe them, as if the old ones just weren’t doing the job to their satisfaction. And, whether we like it our not, they’re happy to shout their sexuality from the rooftops!
I suspect the majority of my fellow English speakers will continue to use the pronouns that were developed over the centuries. As a writer, the thought of writing a sentence like “Nancy came into the room and they decided to sit on the couch,” is anathema, and needlessly confusing. If the Chicago Tribune and New York Times wish to re-invent the language, they’ll have to do it without me.
I mentioned the Académie Francaise above. One of the members was the French novelist Jean Dutourd (1920-2011), a hero of the Resistance and the author of dozens of books in his long life. I actually read one of them in the mid-1950s. Titled A Dog’s Head in its English translation, I can still recall being drawn to it at the McKeesport, Pennsylvania Carnegie Library by its cover. On it was a dapper fellow dressed in suit and tie, with a pair of horned-rimmed glasses on his face, a lit cigarette in his hand. Oh, it wasn’t any of that that caught my attention. It was that he had the head of an adorable spaniel.
He wasn’t the result of bestiality (I wonder if that’s included under pansexuality?). His mother and father were just a normal French couple of the bourgeoisie class. As I recall (and I wasn’t really then educated and sophisticated enough to fully understand it) the point was that most people weren’t prepared to accept someone different than themselves. In its French way, it was a plea for tolerance. A valuable lesson then and now.
If such a creature appeared among us today, what pronouns would we use? Strictly speaking, non-human animals are described as “it” in the singular. Since we tend to be goofy about our animals, most people use “he” or “she” as if they were human. But what of someone with a spaniels head? Using “it” as the base, can I suggest ‘heit’ for males and “sheit” for females? But perhaps you have a better idea?
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon
P.S. I was suddenly reminded of the late cartoonist Walt Kelly’s character, Pogo. He was a possum who lived in a swamp with assorted characters. For Earth Day in 1970, Kelly did a poster, in which little Pogo laments “ We have met the enemy and he is us.” I’m sure the editors of our famous newspapers would now change it.
7 thoughts on “Upon Whose Authority?”
In today’s WSJ, Dan Henninger writes how the Dems have become the bullhorn party. Where issues were once discussed and resolved rationally, now any local grievance or dispute deemed bullhorn-worthy is amplified into a national crisis that can only be resolved nationally, and loudly. We witness this currently with the Supreme Court’s reasoned decision to send the abortion issue to the states for local determination where, I might add, it belongs. But reasoned discourse has become a relic of less enlightened times, so we now see hysterical protests, threats of violence and assassination, unbridled anger and high fences erected around the Supreme Court building.
Gender identity hasn’t quite reached such a high pitch — no one can really figure out who is what anymore — but the fervor has twisted the English language and inflamed everyday communications. Are those two women in the TV commercial men? Is that guy a guy? Is he a husband or wife, and if he is a husband, why is he pretending to breast feed? Don’t get me wrong, I understand humanity contains multitudes and accept the ways people choose to live their lives (provided they don’t come after me with a bullhorn). But leave the language alone. Things are confusing enough!
I’m not sure how languages like Italian, which have grammatical genders, handle this latest obsessive self-identity craze of ours. The grammatical gender of a word may, but not necessarily, conform to the actual sex of the thing it represents or modifies (if it indeed has one). A woman (“donna”) is grammatically feminine. But a table (tavola) and the words that describe it are feminine gender because the word arrived that way from Latin (tabula), not because it has nice legs. The third person singular pronoun “lei” means “she/her” but can also mean “you” when speaking to a man or woman in formal address. In this case, the “lei” refers not to the individual but to a person’s “eccellenza” or “excellency” (a feminine noun), usage that came into the language in the 15th century from Spanish and continues to this day. So, I can’t imagine the knots and contortions if Italians decided to enforce the idiocy we have to deal with just to speak a grammatical sentence. Even if they use their hands!
So it’s probably just a reflection of our culture and politics that “she/her/hers” can become “they/them,theirs” for our linguistic autocrats. You can only image the frustration of poor ESL student-immigrants trying to assimilate into America. Oy vey!
Unlike the French, we may not have an Academy, but we do have a lot of very serious English professors, many with serious chips on their shoulders and with a lot of time to justify.
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I can think of one way to use my hands, or is it my fingers! Saw the video before, but it’s still pretty funny.
We have a new female Supreme Court justice. It seems “she” is not completely sure about “her” gender. Joe Biden in nominating her claimed she was female, but he does tend to get easily confused. Sorry for the video duplication, but it is funny. She-it swims!
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It’s our own Theatre of the Absurd.
One more thought. I think this whole identity business started back in the 70s when girls started to call each other guys. Hey guys! Talk about unintended consequences. If they only knew who Guy Fawkes was.
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Guy got his revenge. His Catholics now run the Supreme Court.
You never expect the Spanish Inquisition!
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