How Pronouns and Identity Have Connected Through the Years

What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She by Dennis Baron (he / him / his), c. 2020, Liveright, $25.95, 304 pages

“Words can never hurt you”?

Even when we were children, that part of the traditional retort to playground taunts didn’t make sense. Of course, sticks and stones broke bones, but even back then, we knew that there’s no sharper weapon than words said in anger or misunderstanding. 

In the new book What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, you’ll see that some of those weapons go way back.

Language is a funny thing. Words hurt, they soothe, and in today’s world, a “pronoun without sex is … sexy.” We ask ourselves and others which ones to use as “an invitation to declare, to honor, or to reject, not just a pronoun, but a gender identity.”

Until relatively recently, “he” was the default pronoun used by many to indicate both masculine and undeclared gender. As far back as 1792, the neutral “he” was thought to be confusing, however. One writer suggested that “one” might work better than “he” to indicate gender neutrality.

“They” was brought up for consideration in 1794.

A century later, and with mostly men controlling law and business, “he” was firmly the pronoun of choice, and it had become politicized. When women protested that “he” clearly didn’t include them, lawmakers stated that “he” also implied “she.” Women countered that if “he” could hold office, then it was implied that “she” could, too, and, well, you can imagine the arguments. 

Through the decades, other words have been suggested (zie, hir, thon) to indicate that someone is gender-neutral or of unknown gender, but none have seemed to stick. Many felt that there simply was no good way to signify neither male or female, or a separation of gender-neutral and nonbinary, and some bemoaned the lack of a “missing word” that would be easily understandable. Says Baron, though, in sifting through the possibilities, we’ve had the word all along.

Sometimes, as Baron points out in his introduction, people today offer their preferred pronoun without being asked, so ubiquitous is the question. Still, we struggle with the right word at times. But in What’s Your Pronoun? he offers a solution that readers may greet with skepticism.

First, though, this etymological history is a good read, especially for word nerds. It’s not college-lecture level; Baron writes with a lighter hand and doesn’t preach, and the occasional threads that spring from the stories here are explored appropriately and in an inviting way, without drudgery. It’s like sitting down at a workshop you’ve eagerly anticipated and being more delighted than you had hoped you would be.

And yet, there is such a thing as information overload, and the obvious solution isn’t so obvious. Proof is at the end of the book, in which we see more than two centuries of verbal wrangling.

So: em, thon, zier, they? We haven’t heard the end of it, but maybe we’re close. Certainly, reading What’s Your Pronoun? couldn’t hurt.