What’s in a name? That’s a question William Shakespeare asked and answered by saying, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
The Bard of Avon was telling us that nomenclature is unimportant and that whatever name we give to a thing does not change its essence.
As society changes and gender standards become less rigid, though, questions of nomenclature have assumed an outsized importance. There are heated and highly emotional battles being waged worldwide.
When the American Dialect Society declared “they”—used as a third-person, gender-neutral, singular pronoun—to be the word of the year, as part of the self-proclaimed “grammar police” I found that tough to swallow. It wasn’t that I don’t agree we need gender-neutral language, but rather that “they” obviously refers to more than one thing.
‘He’ versus ‘they’
It turns out that this new locution is actually a very old one. “They” has been used reflexively to refer to an unknown person of unknown gender probably for as long as there have been English speakers. It has been used by some of the most respected writers in the English language, including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Shaw and Orwell.
“It wasn’t until 1745, when the schoolmistress-turned-grammar-expert Ann Fisher proposed ‘he’ as a universal pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that the use of ‘they’ in the same circumstance was respun as grammatically incorrect,” explained a recent article in The New York Times Magazine.
The problem with “he” as the universal generic pronoun is that the reader cannot help but envision a man, and that just doesn’t seem right in a world where women (in most countries) do the same jobs as men—including serving in combat.
As the roles of women in the military have expanded, the Pentagon has made moves to reflect that in certain job titles. Although not quite as elegant a label, rifle technician is certainly an acceptable replacement for rifleman.
The Navy, though, has run into a real head-scratcher trying to find a replacement for yeoman —enlisted personnel performing clerical duties aboard ship. Because “yeo” by itself doesn’t mean anything, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
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Although “they” is an acceptable solution to the problem, and I’ll eventually get over my issue with singular/plural agreement, it does take some adjustment and can result in some strange-sounding statements.
The culture of today
A recent episode of the HBO show “Girls” highlighted the issue when one character referred to a coffee shop barista of ambiguous gender as “sir,” which, as it quickly became apparent, was not the proper form of address. The barista’s co-worker responded, “You offended they, and you offended me, so I think it’s best that you leave.”
The ultimate lesson for the PR and marketing world from this language revolution is that you have to know to whom you are speaking and how they want to be addressed. Otherwise, “they” might be offended.
Bob Keane is the Editorial Director at JConnelly, a communications and marketing agency based in New York. A version of this article first appeared on JConnelly’s blog.