Pronouns, John Wayne, and Opposites

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November 26, 2018 by libroshombre

Did you celebrate International Pronoun Day on October 17?  Perhaps consideration of pronouns is beneath your dignity, but even the smallest words often carry importance beyond their length.  Take “out,” for instance. Macmillan Dictionary lists at least 52 different senses of “out,” and no wonder; it’s among the most ancient terms.  Its Proto-Indo European ancestor root word, “ud” (“up, out, up away”), evolved into “ut” in Old High German from which it entered the Old English lexicon.  It began use as an adjective, as in “not at home,” “extinguished,” or “open,” in 1200. “Out-and-out,” meaning “thoroughly,” dates to the early 1300s, and being “out” in baseball was first mentioned in 1860.  “Knocked out” came from boxing in 1898, “out to lunch” arose in 1955 student slang, and not being in the “in crowd” from 1966. But “out of sight,” meaning excellent or superior, another popular 60s expression, was first utilized back in 1891.

“Mate” is another tricky little term.  It’s a common greeting in Australia and also New Zealand, where te reo Maori is the latter’s indigenous language.  “Hello Death,” a recent TheGuardian.com article, described how te reo “has been undergoing a revival, and big business has taken note … But Coca-Cola’s attempts to use the native tongue, which is the official language of New Zealand, has fallen flat.  A Coke vending machine emblazoned with the words ‘Kia ora, Mate,’ translates into te reo as ‘Hello Death’,” since in te reo “mate” means “death” instead of “pal.”

Little words matter, and it was delightful to see a former Fairbanksan, Archie Bongiovanni, has illustrated and co-authored a new graphic novel about some small words, “A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns.”  “They” has two meanings according to OxfordDictionaries.com: “two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified,” and “a person of unspecified gender.” Despite John Wayne’s assertion, “If everything isn’t black and white, I say “Why the hell not?’,” that deep thinker was the same guy who said, “Don’t ever say you’re sorry; it’s a sign of weakness.”   Instead of black and white, much of existence, including sexual identity, seems to fall somewhere along a continuum.

Nowadays many people who have non-traditional sexual identities are using a singular “they” instead of “him” or “her.”  This draws attention to “the need for respect and inclusion,” according to Illinois University professor Dennis Baron writes on topical language issues.  In a recent blog post he looked at “the backlash against nonbinary pronouns.” Some English-speakers believe this flies in the face of their religious tenets, and others feel that it violates their First Amendment rights if using “they” instead of “his” or “her” is a requirement at school or work.

“Hie,” “hiora,” and “him,” the Old English word for “two or more” were replaced by Old Norse pronouns “”their,” “theira,” and “thiem,” during the Danish invasion, gradually evolving into “they”, “them,” and “their.”  Despite its current controversial usage, there’s a long tradition of “they” referring to individuals as well as more than one. A Word Note in the American Heritage Dictionary says, “the use of the plural pronouns they, them, themselves, or their with a grammatically singular antecedent dates back to at least to 1300 … Despite the apparent grammatical disagreement … the construction is so widespread both in print and speech that it often passes unnoticed.”

Bongiovanni’s informative book takes a wise middle ground, opening with a panel showing Bongiovanni saying, “Hey, I’m Archie.  I use they/them pronouns,” and her coauthor Tristan Jimerson saying “I’m Tristan. I use he/him pronouns.” They proceed to lay out the groundwork for gender identification.

English is filled with interesting words, and it’s so flexible old ones are often recycled.  The Washington Post does help with their annual neologism contest “in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words.”  This year’s winners include “coffee” (“the person upon whom one coughs”), “lymph” (“to walk with a lisp”), and “rectitude” (“the formal, dignified beairng adopted by proctologists”).

Can’t abide silliness or new pronouns?  You can soon appreciate “Opposite Day,” only,  experts can’t decide whether it’s celebrated January 25, January 7, or the 25th of every month.  However, words are celebrated every day at your library.

 

 

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