Merriam-Webster has announced its annual word of the year, and this time around it’s “they.” The much-referred-to dictionary’s staff has given permission to all the English-speaking writers and editors of the world to use it as a substitute for the genderless pronoun “he,” even when a singular rather than plural pronoun is called for, and even though it has the same effect on our ears as fingernails scraping along a chalk board.
The change has been coming for years, as writers and editors have increasingly tried to avoid giving offense to women by using the old-fashioned and sexist “he.” Some have tried to reconfigure sentences rather than using the pronoun, often quite awkwardly, while others have gone the quickly tiresome “he or she” route, and more and more have chosen to offend the rules of the English language rather than women by using “they.” By now this use of “they” is so common that Merriam-Webster has come to accept it.
The English language continues to evolve, of course, and the Anglosphere has wisely shed some archaic constructions and streamlined its usage while coming up with words for all sorts of newfangled gizmos and modern concepts. The language has also devolved a lot lately, with all sorts of cacophonous neologisms gaining entry into polite company, and such words as “impact” and “anxious” and “cheap” are so often misused that nobody notices.
Lexicographers and English professors and high-brow copy desks and other guardians of the language have traditionally resisted such changes, but for a while now they’ve been giving their blessings to a lowering of standards, perhaps out of fear of being considered fuddy-duddies, and it makes us nauseated. Notice we say “nauseated” rather than “nauseous,” even though official English has given up on that crucial distinction. Fuddy-duddies though we admittedly are, we don’t want to be thought “nauseous” in its original sense of “nausea-inducing,” and we wonder what word to use when that’s the meaning we want to convey.
This might strike you as the supercilious rant of a hide-bound language snob uncomfortable with a changing world, which is fair enough, but there are real world results. A dumbed-down language results in a dumbed-down civilization and a dumbed-down discourse about everything that matters in life. A brilliantly satirical movie called “Idiocracy” envisioned an America five hundred years hence where the language had so degenerated that a visitor of average intelligence from today is thought to sound “faggy,” and the President of the United States is a former pro wrestler and porn star who tells the “House of Representin'” in his State of the Union that “I know everybody’s shit is all emotional right now.”
We’re not there yet, but we do have a President of the United States who has performed in pro wrestling events and soft-core porn videos, routinely uses profanity in front of roaring rally crowds of self-proclaimed Christians, and his “tweets” wouldn’t have earned a passing grade in our fourth grade English class. He calls it “modern presidential,” and the fans find it “authentic” and “politically incorrect,” but we can recall a time when both Republican and Democratic presidents alike were more punctilious about proper English, and for the most part they also did everything else more properly.
The whole “they” thing reminds us of our late and great dear friend Jake Euker, a very talented writer who discussed the issue with us when it first came up many years ago, and agreed that using a plural pronoun where a singular one was clearly called for sounded horrible. He was a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union — he literally had it in his wallet at all times — and he was a Democrat and a homosexual and had some opinions about the filmography of Robert Altman and the meaning of Graham Greene’s novels that we heatedly debated, but when it came to the English language he was downright Burkean in his conservatism. He was fully on board with changes to our civilization’s economic systems and sexual mores and golden era standards of cinema, but he drew the line at using “they” when “he” would be correct, which he thought would lead to inevitable chaos. We can only guess what he’d make of the current president’s “tweets.”
The venerable word “they” is abused enough already. Every conspiracy theory tells of how “they’re” out to get you, the president insists “they’re” saying he’s doing a great job, and in too many cases when a person says “they” we don’t know who the hell he’s talking about. We don’t mean to give any offense to any woman with that last sentence, but our mother tongue also deserves respect.
— Bud Norman