Happy International Pronouns Day!
Not all pronouns are honored today, the way all moms are on Mother’s Day. Pronouns Day is about the pronouns we use that express our genders. “We,” “our” and the other collective pronouns (they, them, us, their), and first-person pronouns (I, me, mine, you, your) usually have no gender. Others (he, she, him, her, etc.) do.
In Mark Twain’s 1880 essay, “The Awful German Language,” he noted the absurdity of assigning genders to objects and body parts. As a Fishwife is gradually consumed by fire — not normally a subject of humor — the pronouns become absurd:
“O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless Fishwife’s Foot — she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even she is partly consumed; and still she spreads(;) she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys it; she attacks its Hand and destroys her; she attacks its Body and consumes him(;) now she reaches its Neck — he goes; now its Chin — it goes; now its Nose — she goes.”
Gender-laden pronouns may be too engrained in English to discard. “It” is neutral, but ignores people’s personhood — fine for a tennis ball, not so much for a human.
The awkward “he/she” sounds terrible in conversation (“Dr. Barnes told me to stop smoking. He/she said it would add years to my life. I’m grateful for his/her advice.”) “S/he” is as unwieldy, and less pronounceable. We can’t always use plural pronouns (“Jason put on their pants”?). Writers sometimes avoid gender pronouns, turning “Jen went to her bedroom” into “Jen went to bed.”
Written contracts often use the worst solution: using only masculine pronouns and reciting, “As used herein the masculine pronoun includes the feminine.” Funny how it’s never the other way around.
The Cabrillo school board has declared October to be LGBTQ History Month, coinciding with similar educational efforts throughout the U.S. and Canada. Some will misconstrue this to be about teaching kids to change their gender identities. That’s not the idea at all.
Children, and even grown-ups, constantly seek the answer to the ultimate question, “Who am I?” Are we defined by our peers, our jobs, our fears, our DNA? Is our desire to be accepted so strong that we’ll say and do things that go against who we really are, just to fit in? For some, being true to oneself and being accepted aren’t easily compatible. If so, it’s because others fail to accept them. Kids are bullied, shunned and teased as they stride and occasionally stumble on the path toward who they’ll become.
The sudden interest in pronouns isn’t about recruitment, it’s about accepting people for who they are, or are becoming. Maybe someday pronoun markers won’t be needed. Until then, a gentle reminder and some kindness will have to do.
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