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The complexities of ‘they’ versus ‘xe/him/xir’

by Hiroaki Sato

“The Economist’s style guide,” Amanda Hess pointed out in an article titled “Multiple Choice: Who’s ‘They’?” in The New York Times on April 3, “still calls the honorific Ms. an ‘ugly’ word.”

That reminded me: When the word began to gain currency in the 1970s, my informal teacher of English, Eleanor Wolff, observed it sounded like a Southern mispronunciation of “Miss.” Not that she looked down upon the Southern use of the language. For example, she urged me to read Eudora Welty, in particular her novel “Losing Battles” (1970). Having never married, she herself stuck to “Miss.”

My teacher’s reservations notwithstanding, I did submit my translations of Japanese women poets to Ms. Magazine that Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes had started in 1971. I even remember having been invited to their editorial office. And their magazine took a poem or two of Taeko Tomioka.

As the Wikipedia entry on the honorific tells you, “Ms.” was not a neologism created by Steinem and Co., but the 1971 edition of the OED didn’t list it. And, in the United States, its adoption raged throughout the 1970s.

For example, the Harpers Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975), edited by William and Mary Morris, with an impressive “panel of consultants on usage,” showed that a full seven out of 10 of the panelists expressed a preference for “the established forms of address for women,” even as 56 percent said they used “Ms.” in correspondence.

These were in response to what Jean Stafford had written in a New York Times article. In it the writer had said that if she received an envelope addressed to her as “Ms.” she would mark it, “Not acceptable to addressee. Return to sender” — after first checking to see if there was a check inside. Otherwise, she should be addressed as “Miss Stafford,” she had written, or as “Mrs. Liebling,” if inquiries had to do with her late husband.

Stafford had been married three times, first famously to the poet Robert Lowell, then to the Time staffer Oliver Jensen, and, finally, to the New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling.

“Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners,” edited by Elsie Burch Donald (1981), noted that “the contraction ‘Ms.’ (pronounced miz)” was “not yet fully established.”

But by the early 1990s, at least one man of erudition and great writer from Australia had become a convert. In “Culture of Complaints” (1993), which had started with a series of lectures under the sponsorship of Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library in 1992, Robert Hughes asked a rhetorical question: “What letter-writer, grateful for the coinage ‘Ms.,’ which lets one formally address women without referring to their marital status, would willingly go back to choosing between ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’?”

It is all the more interesting, then, that Hillary Clinton, of all people, appears to insist on being addressed “Mrs. Clinton.” If she wins the election this year, will she demand to be addressed as “Mrs. President”?

No, I didn’t mean to trace the usage history of “Ms.” as I’ve seen it in the United States. Amanda Hess’ subject in “Who’s ‘They’?” was the “gender binary” question raised in the HBO television series “Girls,” that is, by the show’s creator Lena Dunham’s sister who plays “a young queer writer and performer who identifies as a ‘trans person with a vagina.’ ” She had proclaimed, “I hate, fear and am allergic to binaries.”

It is bewildering and not the least confusing how sex has grabbed the headlines in this country for some years now. Most recently, “gay marriage” was treated as a life-or-death question. Then rape seemed to replace it. The hottest subject for the moment seems to be the toilet for transsexuals.

The “gender binary” argument originated in the 1970s, though the question back then wasn’t called that. Besides, at that incipient stage, the argument was opposite — for differentiation between the two sexes, not for annihilation of it.

As it happens, my employer was in the McGraw-Hill Building. One day, McGraw-Hill, the biggest publisher at the time, issued a notice on English usage guidelines, announcing it would be giving copies of the guidelines to anyone interested. I got one at once.

The focus of the guidelines was, as I recall, on the avoidance of the pronoun “he” as representative of both sexes. As “Harpers Dictionary” put it, “rising protests” were “against the continuation of the traditional use of ‘him’ and ‘his’ when the person referred to is unidentified as to sex, as in ‘Anyone who crosses that road on foot takes his life into his hands.’ “

“Aside from recasting the sentence to avoid the problem, the only solution to date has been to use ‘his or her’ or ‘he or she,’ ” the editors added. “Even feminists themselves have failed to come up with a single word which could mean either sex.”

As I recall, John Kenneth Galbraith toward the end succumbed to the “he or she” construction, whereas Barbara Tuchman continued to call it barbaric to the end.

It did not take long before the term “political correctness,” or “PC,” gained currency even while the move to “overthrow gender-specific terms” wherever possible got underway. Thus, chairman became chairperson or simply chair, Hughes noted, “as though the luckless holder of the office had four cabriole legs and a pierced splat.”

The Australian characterized this righteous intolerance as “a peculiarly American habit.” The chaos that would ensue should this push for unisex be applied to Roman languages “hardly bears thinking about,” he wrote, for there “every noun has a gender while, to make things worse, the word for the male genital organ is often feminine and the one for its female counterpart not uncommonly masculine.”

Japanese should have few such problems where no nouns are gender-specific and pronouns that are may be dropped altogether as they are modern-day inventions anyway. But who knows? The Japanese love to follow the American ways.

To go back to Amanda Hess, the singular “they” or “xe/xim/xir” or something else may replace “he” and “she” soon, although “they” has been used for some time where the person’s gender is “unknown or irrelevant.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.