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The Gender-Neutral Revolution In Gendered Languages

We're trying to make "themself" happen. Plus: scary clowns, questions from readers, and Sam Smith.

Posted on October 1, 2019, at 2:11 p.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copydesk's newsletter. Sign up below to nerd out about language and style with us once a month!

NBC / Giphy

Sometimes it feels like we’ve been screaming “We’re here, we’re using singular they, get used to it!” for 600 years...and in a sense we (read: the English language) have. But, in no small part due to the growing openness of nonbinary folks, it feels like over the past few years it’s become accepted — finally. The nonbinary definition of they was added to Merriam-Webster just this month.

We recently officially added themself to our style guide. For an idea of how public opinion can evolve, look at the results of two Twitter polls we ran about three years apart:

Twitter
Twitter

So FTR we’ve been trying to make themself happen for years. It’s the natural extension of the singular they — formally, it’s the singular reflexive pronoun, which you would use at the end of this sentence:

Last month, Sam Smith announced they use “they”/“them” pronouns for _____.

The alternative, themselves, is what someone might instinctively say in that space, and it’s still perfectly acceptable. Themself rids the ambiguity and emphasizes that it’s talking about just one person, like himself or herself. Maybe in three years, it’ll be commonplace.

How to make our language gender-neutral — more inclusive, less masculine bias–y — is a constant topic of discussion for our copydesk. (Y’all, wth is the best gender-neutral term for snowman? How do we discuss the yeehaw agenda without saying cowboy?) And, yep, sometimes we take for granted that English is a natural gender language, meaning that, while pronouns and some titles have historically been gendered, gender is not threaded throughout every article, noun, and adjective the way it is in some other languages.

In gendered languages, nouns take gendered articles (meanwhile, you question what makes a lamp feminine), and when there is a mix of genders, the standard plural form is almost always masculine. In English, we have the flexibility to make gender-neutral forms of things, while the Académie Française (the! official! arbiter! of! the! French! language!) only THIS YEAR allowed for the ~feminization~ of some job titles. (La présidente, until this year, meant the woman partner of a country’s leader…ouais.)

For German speakers, there’s been controversy over adding asterisks to words with gendered spellings to allow the reader to interpret gender however they choose, a crucial distinction for those who wouldn’t be accurately represented by the masculine or feminine version of a word like student. And while the term Latinx has caught on, Spanish remains gendered like all of the Romance languages, with some facing resistance to gender-neutral pronouns.

It will be interesting to see how some of these languages where gender is felt in every word will continue to evolve with the language of equality — and how quickly.


Questions From Readers


John Bolton was shitcanned today. John Bolton was shit-canned today. Which do you prefer? —Matt

We'd probably go without the hyphen — we opt for whichever version appears first in the Merriam-Webster entry. The hyphenated form is also in there, so either one is A-OK.

I was wondering if you would mind expanding upon the point on your website about the correct usage of “they/them” for a singular person? I have been working on trying to be better with referring to people with they/them because I do not want to assume gender identity, but my family refuses to believe this is grammatically correct. —Marisa

The singular they is part of our style since it's gender-neutral and more convenient than saying he or she (same goes for their instead of his or hers, etc.). You can tell your family that it's grammatically sound.

The Merriam-Webster entry for they has a bit about they, their, them, and themselves as singular pronouns. M-W also has a pretty good write-up about the singular they, which points out that its use is super old, like centuries old. The Oxford English Dictionary says the singular they dates back to 1375. A lot of classic writers, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to Emily Dickinson, have used it. The only relatively new use of the singular they is in reference to someone who doesn’t conform to the gender binary.

Bravo / Giphy

Have any burning style-related questions? Drop us a line at bfstyleguide@buzzfeed.com.


What's New?

Here are the newest words, names, and updated guidelines to the BuzzFeed Style Guide:

memeable
bingeing
Gen Z, Gen Z’er
homebuyer
misgender (v.): to use a pronoun or form of address that does not correctly reflect a person’s gender
LGBTQ pronouns: Always defer to the pronouns a person uses for themself. If it is unclear what pronoun a person uses and it's not possible to ask them, use "they"/"themself."
Pregnancy: Always use figures: 8 months pregnant, 6-week abortion ban, etc.
Hawaiian: Use “Hawaiian” or “Native Hawaiian” to refer to people indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands; use “Hawaii resident” for a person who lives there but is not native to it.
half-hour (adj.)
bacteria (for both the singular and plural form)
webslinger (no hyphen for the on-again, off-again Marvel superhero)


What's The Word?

Warner Bros. / Giphy

coulrophobia (noun) (kül-rə-ˈfō-bē-ə)

You might have seen this word lurking around the internet on lists of names for very specific phobias — this one is an “abnormal fear of clowns.” In fact, it was probably coined by one of those creative list-makers, since it doesn’t originate from psychology and M-W tracks its early usage to the ’90s. It’s supposedly based on the ancient Greek kōlobathristēs, meaning “one who goes on stilts,” plus the -phobia suffix meaning “fear of.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says coulrophobia “looks suspiciously like the sort of thing idle pseudo-intellectuals invent on the internet and which every smarty-pants takes up thereafter.” Nevertheless, clearly humans badly wanted a word for this fear (abnormal? If you say so…🎈), and coulrophobia caught on quickly.

Used in a sentence: Having coulrophobia makes me very wary about accepting invitations to children’s birthday parties.


How’s your numbers game? Take this BuzzFeed style copyediting quiz to find out! (If you do need some help, check out the Numbers section in the BuzzFeed Style Guide.)


3 Things We've Loved Over the Last Few Weeks

  1. Merriam-Webster: The nonbinary pronoun they was added to the dictionary.
  2. Gretchen McCulloch: How can you appreciate 23rd-century English? Look back 200 years.
  3. Sept. 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day. Here are some guidelines for reporting on suicide.

And finally, a tweet:

Stop talking shit about punctuation em dashes are VERSATILE commas are COMPLEX colons are ICONIC semicolons periods are ESSENTIAL

@TheLincoln / Twitter

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