Gender bending

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There's a guy with brown hair who has worked as a checkout person at a store I go to regularly.  He's been there for about five years.  Of the 20 or so checkout persons at the store, all of the others except one are female, mostly between 18 and 25.

Over the course of the last year or so, I noticed that this fellow became increasingly girllike.  Finally, last week when I went to the store, there was a new checkout girl with straight, long blonde hair.  It turned out that I was next in line to go to her counter.  She was wearing a name tag that said "Karen".  I really didn't know this person, but when she spoke to me I realized it was that guy, though his / her (–> their) voice was much higher, and manner even more feminine than before, and he / she (–> they) was (–> were) wearing a skirt.  I really didn't know what to do or say.  My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire.

I sent the above note to some friends.  David Moser, who lives in Beijing, responded:

My daughter went to a summer arts program at a university in Boston last summer.  She has been basically raised in Beijing, so this was the first time she had been in an American university environment.  She told me that the first time all the summer students met up, the coordinator said to them, "Okay, let's go around the room, and everyone introduce yourself and tell us your preferred gender pronoun."  Preferred gender pronoun?  My daughter had never heard of this, but she soon figured it out.  This is the new standard introduction etiquette at American gatherings like this.

I also saw a video of a PRC Chinese student who, in her first week at another American university, encountered the same request for "preferred gender pronoun."  She responded by saying "My name is Sharon Wu, and I have no idea what my preferred gender pronoun is."  Of course, she was expressing linguistic non-comprehension, not gender identity uncertainty.  But the reaction of the other American students was a supportive:  "Oh, that's okay, many of us are not sure either, still trying to decide, you don't have to come up with one right now," etc.

It seems that we are in the midst of a profound cultural shift, one that requires considerable adjustments on the part of practically everyone in society.

[N.B.:  all names in this post have been changed or otherwise anonymized]


  1. Guy said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

    "I really didn't know what to do or say. My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire."

    I'm hardly an expert on sensitivity, but I'm always a little confused at the way many people feel the need to treat a transitioning person as if they are a completely different person, as opposed to just a different gender. Are there groups out there that advise this? It reminds me of someone who asked "did Bruce Jenner win the Olympic medal or did Caitlyn?" clearly confused about what the "right" answer would be. Where do people get the idea that the answer is anything other than "those names refer to the same person, and she prefers to go by Caitlyn"? We don't get this kind of confusion with other name changes or with religious conversions.

  2. Evan Harper said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:19 pm

    Your checkout counter experience falls under "cultural shift that requires adjustments on the part of practically everyone in society." So does the concept of a preferred gender pronoun. But I'm not sure that opening a meeting by going around the room asking people about their "preferred gender pronoun" does. The most I expect could ever happen is everyone settling on "they / them / their" for everyone else, with "he/her" going the way of "thou." The broader world does not reward exaggerated displays of one's personal antibigotedness enough to justify the inconvenience and silliness of it.

  3. Rachel B said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:33 pm

    For personal pronouns, I started asking my students for theirs this semester; most groked the concept pretty quickly with an example ("I'm Rachel, and my pronouns are she/her/hers"), and everyone in the class went with either she/her/hers, or he/him/his. In any case, doing so, even if nobody has "weird" pronouns normalizes the practice, and I think, in circles where it's more wildly adopted (say, a place like Oberlin), adds one less layer of awkwardness for any trans or gender queer persons involved.

    I know a few people who do use they/them/their, it does take some mental effort to remember to use their pronouns, but it's no more inconvenience or trouble than, say, remembering to not call a friend who's changed their name due to marriage by their old last name.

  4. Chris Waigl said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

    I really didn't know what to do or say. My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire.

    Being from the GLBT community myself, I'm pretty much unshockable and suprise-proof. But a cashier at a little store (belonging to a nonprofit and catering partly to tourists) did the same thing, except in the FTM direction. When I saw him again, now a man, I just said "Hey, good to see you! How's it going?"

    When I was a child (in the 80s, Germany) a person transitioned at my step-mother's workplace — a large company with at least back then the reputation of taking relatively good care of its employees. My step-mother must have talked about it as an unexpected situation, but what I took away from it was something like "Huh, ok, so men becoming women, and presumably vice versa, is something that can happen. Good information. File away for future reference." Much later I realized that not everyone was just taking this as a matter of course.

  5. julie lee said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

    Several decades ago, when a man changed into a woman, it was called a "sex change" Christine Jorgensen was a famous example. Now it's called a gender change. I read the Vanity Fair cover story on Bruce Jenner's changing into Kaitlyn Jenner, and was deeply moved by her earlier suffferings from gender confusion. The article says gender is not sex, a change of gender is not a change of sex. I must say I'm confused on this.

  6. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:59 pm

    @julie lee: Some people distinguish between physical "sex" (i.e. something to do with your genitals) and "gender" which is largely a matter of identity and perhaps presentation. So a person with indeterminate genders (who might in other eras have been called a hermaphrodite) is called "intersex", regardless of how they identify gender-wise. I think the use of "gender change/transition" is to emphasize that what matters is how someone thinks of themselves is the important part, rather than what their reproductive organs look like. Since it's generally rude to inquire about a person's genitals, people tend to focus on gender and ignore sex.

  7. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 9:05 pm

    As a person who has most of my daily interactions in a non-native language (I'm an American living in Bolivia) I find it's pretty common for my lack of understanding to be interpreted as communication. More than once I've accidentally bargained by mishearing a vendor.

  8. Rose Kamego said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

    I recall visiting with an old couple in Qingdao. They said they believed it was the natural course of things to change genders. As we move into old age men become more like women and women become more like men. So it goes.

  9. Orin Hargraves said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

    My university "strongly recommends" that professors put the following statement in their syllabi:

    "Class rosters are provided to the instructor with the student's legal name. I will gladly honor your request to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun. Please advise me of this preference early in the semester so that I may make appropriate changes to my records."

    That notwithstanding, I pray that we are not in the midst of "a profound cultural shift" and I will be a bit dismayed if it turns out that we are. Welcome and encourage diversity and difference? yes. Treat the adventitious as if it were expected? why? If 0.3 percent of people identify as transgender (that's a figure I find online in a few places), the cost/benefit analysis of polling about gender pronouns will certainly not hold up.

  10. Laura Morland said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 10:02 pm

    I had the same experience at our café here in Berkeley. A new server seemed at first like a young woman trying, but failing, to be a guy. I recall feeling a little awkward around this person, and somewhat embarrassed for the pour soul. Over the next few months, s/he (or "they") must have started taking hormones, because the speaking voice dropped about an octave, and a full beard appeared.

    Now, two years later, the transformation is so complete that he has done away with the beard — he no longer needs it! — and has let his hair grow to his shoulders. I admit to feeling much more comfortable with our server now that he's become unambiguously male, and a nice-looking guy at that.

    On the other hand, a friend of my niece, a girl I've known since she was in the 7th grade, at age 16 decided to become "gender fluid," wearing boy's clothes one week, and girl's clothes the next. I can't help but feel that her future is *much* more wobbly than that of our successfully-transitioned server.

    Gender is such a fundamental part of the human animal. It's the first element we identify in a new person, and our dogs and cats do, too (with us humans, not just with each other). I'll be interested to see how young people who are trying to "straddle the line" make it later on in life.

    Two more comments:

    @Victor Mair — I understand that you were nonplussed, but to treat the cashier as a "new hire" is to deny your previous relationship with that person (however minimal it may have been). As @Guy said, she is one and the same person!

    @Orin Hargraves, applying a cost/benefit analysis to human behavior almost always ends up hurting someone.

  11. Guy said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 10:32 pm

    @julie lee

    "Sex" refers to the biological/physiological classification, "gender" refers to the social construct that relates to sex. Our society is usually understood to have two genders but there are other societies (such as in South Asia and Oceania) that sociologists widely agree have more than two. A single-gender or "genderless" society is also theoretically possible but as far as I know none has ever been observed. This terminological distinction can probably be traced back to linguistics, which traditionally draws a different but superficially similar distinction – "sex" referring to the semantic concept, and "gender" referring to its syntactic analogue. The most common term is "transgender", not "transsexual" because all the relevant aspects being changed are mostly social ones (clothing, make-up, access to gendered spaces, pronouns, how people generally interact with you). The term "transsexual" is also disfavored because it is sometimes understood to mean that the person has had sexual reassignment surgery, which many transgender people have not had and is widely considered to not really be anyone's business anyway.

  12. Guy said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 10:39 pm

    I should add that the linguistic term "gender" does not necessarily relate to semantic notions relating to sex or sociological gender. There exist languages that few gender distinctions between "big" and "little" rather than "masculine" and "feminine", for example, but the term "gender" is still used because this difference isn't really important from a grammatical perspective (you still have agreement rules and stuff, whatever semantic tendencies might underlie the classification).

  13. Roger Lustig said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 11:54 pm

    @Orin Hargraves: 0.3% of people can still include a substantial percentage of college students.

  14. Martin Ball said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 12:55 am

    @Rachel B "most groked the concept pretty quickly" Whut??!!

  15. Julian said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 1:28 am

    At my university, preferred gender pronouns are only brought up in situations where it's expected that at least one person will use something other than "what you'd expect". For example, at a meeting of the LGBT+ organization, I'd guess about 20-25% of the people there gave some answer that was not he or she. In most situations, they aren't mentioned at all.

  16. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 2:04 am

    There should be an apocryphal story of an American student going to a Chinese classroom and being mystified when asked as to their preferred noun classifier. "We don't want to just assume that all of our students identify as 个."

    I've known plenty of people whose preferred pronouns, when starting college, were very difficult to guess correctly, including many whose endogenous hormones actually matched their identities. Asking everybody avoids the awkwardness of needing to ask some particular people, beyond the possibility of getting answers that don't match expectations you'd formed.

  17. Eli said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 2:50 am

    @Orin, spell it out for me, what do you see as the cost?

    You know, if it helps, recall how in the the Good Old Days people would call a new acquaintance by title and last name? You certainly had to pick up the correct title. If you struck up an acquaintance without an introduction to communicate titles, you would make other means.

    Some would consider all that unnecessary social forms and politeness. But we survived it. Truth is, we never noticed the fraction of a minute that negotiating title consumed out of the small-talk dance of meeting someone.

    So the cost is… just how many new acquaintances do you make, to the degree of engaging in conversation and needing a pronoun, during an average week in your line of work? Multiply that by ten seconds, divide by 60, multiply by 52: there's your minutes per year.

  18. maidhc said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 3:46 am

    I remember some 30 years ago when there was someone named Bruce in our workplace, and one day she turned up in a dress and said "call me Christine".

    It was a bit of a nine day's wonder. A lot of people made some excuse to go by her desk to look at her. But after a while nothing new happened and people just got used to it.

    There was some discussion about what restroom she would use, but there were two women's restrooms in the building, so management said she's going to use this one, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable you can go to the other one.

    I live in California, so maybe we're a little ahead of the curve. But I don't see why people should make a big deal about it. It's not really anybody's business in the workplace, other than the restroom question. But that's a question that could be settled with some discussion.

  19. John Swindle said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 4:32 am

    I suppose the American military still asks each soldier for his or her religious preference and records it on dog tags. When they were having their way with me some decades ago, the list of religions was open-ended. Names of various religions and atheisms were scrawled on the blackboard so we'd know how to spell them. If you want one that's not up there, just ask. The process, although memorable, seemed unexceptionable. Only later did I realize that the idea of "religious preference" would strike people in some places as strange.

  20. Lukas said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 5:04 am

    >"If 0.3 percent of people identify as transgender (that's
    > a figure I find online in a few places), the cost/benefit
    > analysis of polling about gender pronouns will certainly
    > not hold up."

    I hope we're not measuring whether common courtesy is warranted based on cost, particularly if the cost is negligible. It's a bit like proclaiming that you will no longer greet people, because it's taking too much of your time, and no actual exchange of pertinent information occurs.

    Addressing people in a way that they like to be addressed is really not asking very much. If people change their name, you don't insist on using their previous name, because learning the new name imparts too high a cost on you, right?

  21. richardelguru said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 5:47 am

    Well mine are: ic, me, min, me and he, hine, his, him.
    But I suppose things do change :-)

  22. Jeremy said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 7:58 am

    @Martin Ball

    It's from Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land". "To grok" is essentially "to understand", however, there was a whole lot of extra, metaphysical stuff thrown in.

  23. _NL said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    Is it terribly different from when somebody converts their religion, gets married (dropping a maiden name) or selects a new call name?

    I know a lot of idiosyncratic or nonstandard naming conventions can be upsetting to a person who prefers custom and ritual, which is why non-events like Hillary "Rodham" Clinton pointedly retaining and using her maiden name bothered so many people, and why Muhammad Ali was called Cassius Clay by some recalcitrants.

    If the phrase "Muhammad Ali was born in [Year]" makes sense, then I think the phrase "Caitlyn Jenner won an Olympic gold medal" also makes sense. Which suggests that we are referring to the current person (or, in the event of the deceased, the most current person).

  24. _NL said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    @Orin – Although it's true that nontraditional gender preferences are likely rare relative to the total population, asking the question also signals to students, faculty, staff and outside observers information about the university, its policies, and its intentions to embrace this type of diversity. To some extent, this is communication to everybody, even if only a small fraction will likely ever make use of the option being offered.

    Like offering your dinner companions the last roll of bread in the basket, the act of offering is in some ways more important than the substance of the offer.

  25. v01ces said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    So, I assume that profound cultural shifts are something that could happen in any country, not only in English-speaking ones. In that regard, I am curious—what can be done about gender-neutral pronouns in languages where not only adjectives but even verbs must agree in gender with the subject? Can anyone here offer a workable solution?

  26. Joe said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 9:33 am

    Estimates of nontraditional gender preferences may also be somewhat lower than the actual figure, given that people may not feel comfortable being open about this aspect of their identity to non-intimates. Using inclusive language in a class syllabus sends a message that those preferences will be honored if the student wishes to share them. My university similarly asks that our syllabi include information about disability services; this tells affected students that it's okay to be open about such things and it normalizes the system for everybody else.

  27. Francois Lang said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 10:11 am

    @ Rachel B:
    The past tense/participle of "grok" is "grokked", and not "groked", (which would rhyme with "croaked")!

    Please brush up on your Martian :-)

  28. bks said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    Shouldn't the discriminant be mating type?

  29. julie lee said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 11:27 am

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen and @Guy:

    Thank you very much for your clear explanations on the difference between sex and gender.

  30. Jenny F Scientist said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    @bks: no, mating type is for yeast and only has three choices (h+, h-, h+/h-; or a, α, and diploid, depending on the species). Humans come in many more flavors than that!

  31. EricF said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

    My name is Eric and my preferred gender pronoun is "puny human" uttered in a basso, robot voice.

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    Conventions in usage for those who have changed names over the course of their lives in more quote traditional ways are rather complicated and perhaps not entirely standardized, and often depend on whether the focus is on the past event in its own context or reporting a historical fact about the present day person. So if you are talking about Hillary Clinton's earlier life in the context of providing background for who she is today, it might seem gratuitous to stress that when she gave her speech at her college graduation she was Hillary Rodham, but if you were writing about that speech in the context of e.g. what sorts of things young people were rambling on about in 1969 it would seem more plausible, even if not obligatory, to use the name she used at the time. And ditto if you are talking about the early boxing victories of the competitor known at the time as Cassius Clay. Consider also how we handle people who are often referred to by a subsequently-acquired title. It's fine to say that "President Ford played football for the University of Michigan" but odder to say "here's a picture President Ford in his football uniform" if the picture was taken in the 1930's rather than the 1970's. You have workarounds like "the future president."

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

    There's also a potential difficulty that even if the uncontroversial norm is to defer to the person's preferences that's easy when it comes to how to address them and/or refer to them in the third person currently, but it seems naive to assume that everyone who has publicly transitioned will have the same preferences as to how you refer to them in the context of discussing their pre-transition life, probably not least because it seems naive to assume that everyone has the same attitude or self-understanding or self-narrative regarding their pre-transition identity, and there is less likely to be a context upon initial introduction for a particular person's preferences in that regard to naturally come up.

  34. Peter Dowdy said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

    In Mandarin Chinese, there are two gender pronouns: 他 and 她. They are both pronounced exactly the same way. A verbal response to that question in Chinese would be a nonsense response. The questioner could dig deeper and instead as "Which gender do you identify as?", but they would not be able to implement the answer to that question by changing the spoken pronoun used to refer to that person.

  35. Rachel B said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    @Francois Lang sorry about my spelling mistake!

    @v01ces, in re: what to do with languages with more complex agreement patterns, it depends on both the language and the speaker. Orit Bershtling has done some research on trans and genderqueer people in Israel and found a variety of strategies. Some folks use the "opposite" gender marking; some folks switch between both masculine and feminine markers in the same utterance;some use avoidance patterns (e.g., using first person past and future, which don't mark gender like the present does). Presumably in those cases, the interlocutors pick up on the patterns and follow suit.

  36. Xtifr said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    Count me as another member of team she's-the-same-person-not-somebody-new. Heck, she even had a name-tag, which let you avoid the possibly-awkward, "so, did you change your name too?" conversation. Don't treat her any differently than you did before.

    Re sex vs gender. When I was young, I frequently got annoyed when people used "gender" as a euphemism for sex. I wasn't a fan of euphemisms, so I came up with a pithy statement to use when I encountered this: "language has gender; people have sex!" Being young, I was pleased that this was technically accurate, while containing an obvious double entendre designed to make euphemism users uncomfortable.

    The newer meaning of gender has made my mild witticism invalid. I think the new meaning fills an obvious need, so I can't actually complain, but I do get a little sad at times. I guess I haven't matured completely. :)

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

    There is a semi-learned usage of "gender" as a thing that is conceptually distinct from biological sex but typically (but not invariably, hence the importance of the distinction) correlates with it in practice. Then there's a not-so-learned usage of "gender" as a pure synonym (perhaps somewhat euphemistic) for biological sex. It may be difficult in given instances to distinguish between these usages, but I see no empirical reason to think the former is the dominant one.

    I am for some reason reminded of a conversation I had in a college dining hall over three decades ago with an earnest young lady (we would both have still been in our teens at the time) who was very excited to have just been informed in some class that "penis" refers to a biological organ whereas by contrast "phallus" refers to some socially-constructed metaphorical thingamabob. Which is probably a distinction (reasonably analogous to the sex/gender distinction maintained by some) that helped you make sense of the usage of some particular individual academic theorist she was reading for that class (in context likely to have been one of the French post-structuralist dudes who were fashionable at the time) but was not a complete or accurate statement of the full semantic range of either word. The rather un-French WVO Quine somewhere or other gives the example of the recurrent desire of snobs and/or theorists in the field of alcoholic beverages to come up with technical definitions of "beer" and "ale" that make them distinct from each other, because having murky synonyms that heavily but not completely overlap seems so untidy and chaotic to people with a certain frame of mind. But Quine's point seemed to be that actual usage in natural language is inevitably untidy and chaotic like that.

  38. peterv said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

    J. W. Brewer:

    There are cultures with very different attitudes to human names from our modern, western culture. In Shona culture of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, for instance, people may have, over the course of their life, a dozen or more different names. These names may be given to them by others, and/or assigned by themselves, and may reflect behaviours or attitudes, both observed and aspired to.

    A Western European might construe many of these names as nicknames, but that view, IMO, treats the names with a flippancy absent from maShona treatments. Because of their presumed power to invoke particular personal attributes or the spirits of dead ancestors, names are not generally things to be trifled with.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

    It was de rigueur for Chinese of good breeding and social respectability to have two, three, four, or many more names. These alternative names were intended for different purposes or to express different aspects of an individual's personality or aspirations.

    The great 20th-century Chinese writer, Lu Xun, had over a hundred different names.

    Lu Xun was not his real name! His name at birth was Zhou Zhangshou, but very few people know that name.

    I knew a scholar who spent most of his life writing a book about the aliases of 20th-century Chinese authors. Indeed, it came out in a second edition.

    As I recall, in his magnum opus (1,500 pages), Pao-liang Chu (a family friend whom I was happy to help with his book) included more than a hundred names for Lu Xun.

  40. etv13 said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    It seems to me there's a meaningful distinction between the cases of Mohammed Ali and Caitlyn Jenner: Bruce Jenner won an Olympic medal in an event Caitlyn Jenner could not have entered.

  41. v01ces said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 4:09 am

    @ Rachel B,
    Thank you for your answer, I will be sure to look up the research you mentioned. Yet, this does not appear to solve the problem of gender-neutrality, as I still have to choose between, essentially, two options: referring to a person as either he or she, because my verbs and adjectives can only take masculine or feminine agreement. Using avoidance patterns can be a solution, but in many languages it is extremely hard bordering on impossible to do consistently, especially in spoken language.
    I seem to recall a Russian novel that did it as a joke to keep a reader in the dark about one of the characters, but I am sure that this can only be done in written texts, with enough time, and the language will still be quite convoluted.

  42. C said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 4:24 am


    You're not limited to he or she. There are people who actively choose and request neutral they/them/their, and a smaller number who prefer other terms. See this recent Language Log post and comments:

    As for a novel that doesn't disclose a character's gender, I recently read (but would not really recommend!), "Lock In" by John Scalzi ( It's easy to assume an FBI agent called Chris is male, but you gradually realise it is never stated, or even implied, and yet I didn't spot any clunkily evasive sentences.

  43. JW Mason said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 8:21 am

    We don't get this kind of confusion with other name changes or with religious conversions.

    Sure we do. Go back and read some of the news coverage of Muhammad Ali from the 1960s. It was just as clueless and condescending as the treatment of trans people today.

  44. v01ces said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 8:25 am

    We are talking about languages where adjectives and verbs must agree in gender with nouns. So, neuter is not an option, because ones you start agreeing verbs and adjectives, especially in pro-drop languages, it will look like you are referring to a person as “it”, and that would be dehumanizing.
    As for the novel, I assume that you read it in English. It would be a fun challenge to translate it into, say, Ukrainian. I'd bet it would require a brilliant translator and it will still sound strange. If such translation would be possible at all.

  45. LAL said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    This topic is currently of great interest at US universities as young people are becoming more aware of new possibilities of gender identification. Its much more than a fad. From the standpoint of language there has been recent research which points to the very real effects of differential use of gendered language in everyday life. See for example :

  46. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 11:54 am

    What I don't get about preferred pronouns is how in heaven are we expected to remember them? I have enough trouble remembering names. Keeping track of preferred pronouns, and keeping this information close enough to the surface that it will be used in unselfconscious speech seems wildly optimistic.

    As for my preferred pronoun, it is "you." In the happy event that our relationship flourishes, we might achieve such intimacy that it changes to "thou."

  47. C said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    @Richard Hershberger
    As the vast majority of people prefer the conventional pronouns, surely the few people you may encounter who have a different preference will be memorable?

  48. julie lee said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 1:12 pm

    As a Chinese Mandarin speaker, I've always thought "ni" (you) rude when addressing an elder or superior. But the polite "you" is "nin", which I find stilted. Addressing parents as "you" is rude. You always call them Father, Mother, Mom, Dad, Ma, Pa, and so forth, never "ni" (you). So you'd say: "Would Mom like a cup of tea?" not "Would you like a cup of tea, Mom?"

    The same in addressing your teacher, doctor, or other person you look up to. "Would Teacher like a cup of tea?" And you always address a higher person by his last title. "Would zhuxi (Governor) like a cup of tea?" even he was governor many years ago. "Would jiangjun (General) like a cup of tea?" and so on. Never "Would you…."

    Mrs. Claire Chennault, whose husband General Claire Chennault saved China at the beginning of World War II by organizing his American "Flying Tigers" to help Chiang Kai-shek fight off the Japanese, later wrote memoirs in which she always referred to her husband as "jiangjun" (General), never as "Claire". So: "Jiangjun retired in 19__, and then Jiangjun and I went to live in ___." My mom thought this improper and grated on the ear because Mrs. Chennault was talking of her own husband and should have been more modest, should have just used "Claire", instead of constantly drumming on the fact that Chennault was a general.

  49. julie lee said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    p.s. The German polite "you" –"Sie"– which is the same word as "they" (sie), is interesting. Perhaps it also expresses the feeling that a direct "you" would be rude.

  50. benny said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    It's a brave new world!

  51. DWalker said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    Not to add too much to this, but I don't like it when standard forms, of ALL kinds, ask your occupation, your sex, sometimes your employer, etc.

    My doctor's office (especially a lab that is just doing some x-rays or a blood draw for tests) doesn't need to know my marital status or my annual income. I often answer "marital status" and "annual income" by writing "not relevant" on the form.

    No one else BUT my doctors need to know whether I am male or female … although I am pretty unambiguously male-appearing and I identify as male.

    The first question about a new baby is always "Is it a boy or a girl?". Sometimes I wish we could answer "why does it matter?", then I wonder why I wonder about that. So many first-world problems….

  52. julie lee said,

    October 8, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

    oops, my comments belong to another post, where Victor Mair discussed the polite "you" (nin) in Mandarin.

  53. Rod Johnson said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 8:04 am

    DWalker: a medical office that asks for annual income on a lab referral (or any form at all, ever)? I've never encountered such a thing. For real?

  54. Nathan Myers said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    I have to admit disappointment that the title was not "Gender Bendery".

  55. GH said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 10:18 am

    @ julie lee:

    I may have mentioned this before, but pronoun avoidance by using titles or a relationship descriptor was also mandatory in many situations in Swedish (not otherwise a country one would expect to have much in common with China, culturally) up into the last century. As Wikipedia explains, the rules of etiquette got so unwieldy that people started using circumlocutions or passive voice to avoid referring directly to the other person at all:

    As the twentieth century progressed, this circumlocutive system of addressing, with its innumerable ambiguities and opportunities for unintentional offence, was increasingly felt as a nuisance. An early way out was to carry the circumlocutions one degree further—finding impersonal ways of saying what was needful, avoiding both personal pronoun and title. (Får det lov att vara en kopp kaffe?, approximately 'Might it be a cup of coffee?' [for "Do you want a cup of coffee?"]; Så det är till att resa?, approximately 'So, it is about travelling?' [for "Are you going to travel?"]). However, that soon proved of little avail. For one thing, you still had to address the person you talked with directly from time to time in the conversation, otherwise you would really have sounded impolite—and over time, it became de rigueur to do so more and more often, until it was a system with both longish titles used instead of personal pronouns and impersonal circumlocutions; and for another, the impersonal constructions soon acquired their own gradations, to be observant upon—e.g., that in the second example above being perceived as more and more rustic, ending up rude.

    The Swedish solution was to do away with all of it and use the informal (T) second-person pronoun du universally.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    @Nathan Myers

    I struggled long and hard to resist "Gender bender".

  57. DWalker said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    @Rod Johnson: Yep, for real. I predict they copied some other medical form and didn't really care whether the questions were relevant.

  58. Levantine said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 11:32 am

    I was under the impression that "gender bend(ing/er)" had joined "tranny" and "shemale" in the list of words that are likely to offend the individuals concerned. That "bender" is coincidentally a homophobic slur in British English doesn't help matters.

  59. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 1:12 pm

    Without downplaying the negative reaction that The Boxer Formerly Known As Cassius Clay may have experienced related to his new name, there were other at least modestly prominent black Americans who went through similar name changes in around the same era (quite a number of jazz musicians, or consider The Poet Formerly Known As LeRoi Jones) without attracting similar levels of negative reaction. So there was something specific to the circumstances of the former Mr. Clay (his level of pre-name-change celebrity, his absolute level of celebrity outside a specialized audience, his line of work, his political attitudes and actions, a confrontational and publicity-seeking public persona, maybe other factors?) that did not consistently carry over to what would seem to be otherwise similar situations.

  60. Levantine said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    J. W. Brewer, could it be that "Muhammad", more than other Arabic names, was (and remains) more starkly other?

  61. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

    Levantine: I'm not sure how you would test that, esp given the very different way(s) in which Arabic or Islamic sounding names might have seemed "other" to mainstream Americans 50 years ago (when the boxer changed his name) compared to more recently. I don't think the jazz drummer Idris Muhammad (born Leo Morris) got any more negative PR than e.g. the jazz saxophonist Sahib Shihab (born Edmund Gregory), although I will confess that my (certainly incomplete) mental database of jazz-musicians-who-adopted-Arabic-sounding-names doesn't have anyone who took Mohammed or some spelling variant thereof as a first name.

  62. Levantine said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

    J. W. Brewer, you're right, of course, and my comment may have been overly informed by current realities. Perhaps, as you suggested, Clay's celebrity was the biggest factor.

  63. julie lee said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

    @GH, Thank you for your comment and the long fascinating quote about "pronoun avoidance by using titles or a relationship descriptor was also mandatory in many situations in Swedish". I do remember reading your previous comment about it, and thinking how similar it was to the situation in China.

  64. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

    Separately, I did not know the BrEng slang sense of "bender" alluded to above, and it makes me wonder about the implications of The Guitarist Formerly and Subsequently Known As Luther Grosvenor's adoption of the stage name Ariel Bender during his stint as a member of Mott the Hoople. (Wikipedia has a sexual-slang-free account of the origin of the name but sources it to an interview many many years later, and even if that account were taken to be true a double entendre might have been viewed as a bonus. Or might not.)

  65. dr susan calvin said,

    October 9, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    My cousin, a Catholic nun trained in Canon Law, told me years ago that the legal requirement to be a priest was that one had to be born a male. This obviously excludes FtM trans priests, but she was not able to discount the possibility of a MtF trans being "legally" within Canon Law. The Holy Roman Church might make ordination difficult or impossible, but church law doesn't prohibit the possibility. Awkward.

  66. Kiwanda said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 11:24 am

    Fun fact: "Mrs. Claire Chennault, whose husband General Claire Chennault saved China…" is better known as Anna, and is the woman who conspired with John Mitchell and the Nixon campaign to violate the Logan Act by sabotaging the Paris Peace Accords in 1968, in order to hurt Humphrey's chances for re-election.

  67. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    Speaking of generals' wives, I've heard from a retiree in Florida that he knows a number of retired military officers and their wives, and when the wives refer to their husbands in the third person, it's not by name or "my husband" but "the major", "the colonel", etc.

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