"They are a prophet"

« previous post | next post »

From Geoff Pullum's 10/21/2004 LLOG post:

My student Nick Reynolds reports on a beautiful example of singular they found in an exchange of graffiti. Someone had scrawled this on the wall:

Vote Arnold 4 prez

— recommending a vote for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as President of the United States. Someone else, mindful perhaps of Schwarzenegger's ineligibility for that post, had scrawled something obscene below it about the first writer's ignorance. But a third person, mindful of how the future may resemble the world of the Terminator movies in which our governor had his greatest movie successes, added this response:

This person is not ignorant.
They are a prophet.
The machines will rule us.

From a 4/27/2021 Penn State Faculty Senate resolution on "Removal of Gendered & Binary Terms from Course and Program Descriptions", about how to "[m]ove away from the use of gendered pronouns when referring to students, faculty, staff, and guests in course descriptions and degree programs":

Replace he/him/his and she/her/hers with they/them/theirs

So the prophecy about Arnold Schwarzenegger as president: not so much. The prophecy about the machines ruling us: on schedule. The (implicit) prophecy about moving away from the use of gendered pronouns, at least in certain circles: moving along.

 



28 Comments »

  1. Krogerfoot said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 8:00 am

    I recently led a project that involved creating thousands of prompts for (primarily Japanese) EFL students and their online teachers, with the object of providing a short role-play practice for the phrases and vocabulary the students had studied before their interaction with the instructor. There is no way to know the sex of either participant, so using they/their/them in the prompts was a lifesaver. It was so useful that now I honestly can't remember why I ever objected to this usage before.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 9:46 am

    I was fascinated to be informed that "junior" and "senior" (as applied to the penultimate and ultimate years of undergraduate education) are covertly masculine-gendered terms in need of replacement. Citation needed, as they say on wikipedia. I daresay standards of Latinity among the Penn State faculty are not what they once were, but it is particularly interesting that "iunior" and "senior" are among the group of third-declension Latin adjectives that are *not* inflected differently to distinguish masc. from fem., although they are inflected (in some cases) to distinguish masc./fem. from neut.

  3. mg said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 10:35 am

    Three decades ago my syntax class had a discussion about whether the singular "they" was only being used when gender was unknown or referred to any unspecified person. A week later on Halloween I got some trick-or-treaters with UNICEF boxes. I called for my husband to bring some change and one of the girls asked why a woman always called for *their* husband for this. After teaching the girls the sad facts of life about pockets, I reported back to my class that youngsters were using "they" even when sex was known. Fortuitous timing for a real-world example.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 12:01 pm

    The community college where I work is moving in the direction of non-gendered pronouns too. I'm not sure there's anything left to change.

    Why the limitation to "students, faculty, staff, and guests"? Shouldn't it just apply to all people? For instance, what if there's a course like this? "Each semester we study a different notable writer, focusing on how their historical and cultural context is reflected in their writing."

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 12:02 pm

    I meant to add that I like the use of examples and I like the stipulation that the changes don't need to be reviewed by the Senate. Possibly those ideas could be introduced elsewhere.

  6. Alon Lischinsky said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 1:11 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: I think this is a lot less about Latin iunior, iunius and senior, senius than about the fact that in English these terms have traditionally been gendered. So the OED glosses their first meaning for junior as ’used after a person's name (†or title) to denote the younger of two bearing the same name in a family, esp. a son of the same name as his father; also (after a simple surname) the younger of two boys of the same surname in a school‘ (emphasis added).

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 3:02 pm

    @Alon L.: the use to disambiguate father-son names is gendered because it is not generally the Done Thing in Anglophone societies for a daughter to have the same given name as her mother. It's not as if there's a different standard way to disambiguate mother from daughter. That second brother-disambiguating sense in the OED is not current in 21st-century AmEng at all although I believe I may have seen it in old novels set in English boarding schools. But the notion that a word that is gendered in one specific context should be understood as gendered in all contexts makes no sense at all. One talks about "junior" versus "senior" members of a stereotypically female profession like nursing just as naturally as about a stereotypically male profession like military officers.

    And indeed in AmEng "junior" also has a specific meaning for female clothing: "junior" sizes of dresses presuppose a different body type than e.g. "misses" sizes, but there is no parallel usage of the word in sizing for male clothing.

    Maybe it turns out to be difficult to get rid of "freshman" without getting rid of the other three words that it has historically formed a set sequence with. But you don't need to make up stories about the alleged shortcomings of the other words.

  8. mollymooly said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 7:38 pm

    "it is not generally the Done Thing in Anglophone societies for a daughter to have the same given name as her mother"[citation needed]

    Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was named after her mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

    For non-royals, John Smith and his son John Smith were distinguished by snr and jnr, whereas his wife and daughter, both Jane, were respectively Mrs Smith and Miss Smith until the latter married, when she would be Mrs Jones or perhaps Mrs Robert Smith but unlikely to be a second Mrs John Smith.

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    June 8, 2021 @ 9:22 pm

    A friend of a friend was named after her mother. They called the girl "Margaret Junior" as a baby (which was considered a joke), which was eventually shortened to "Junior" and then "June" – with the inevitable result that she is universally known as June.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 10:01 am

    By "not the Done Thing" I didn't mean to imply "never occurs" as opposed to "has generally been rare enough that there is not as well-established a standard protocol for disambiguation," although I suppose there may have also been reasons why in prior times disambiguation was felt more necessary/important for males in the same family than females in the same family.

    Perhaps more to the point, the senior/junior usage in academic settings may be the older one.* Or at least Wm. Tyndale responded back circa 1530 to criticism of his New Testament translation by Thos. More by writing "Another thing which he rebuketh is that I interpret this Greek word presbyteros by this word senior. Of a truth, senior is no very good English, though senior and junior be used in the universities: but there came no better in my mind at that time. Howbeit, I spied my fault since, long ere Master More told it me, and have mended it in all the works which I since made and call it an elder." Although even more to the point, I expect that corpus analysis at any point in history would show that neither the "father/son" usage or the "12th grade / 11th grade" usage was a sufficiently high percentage of all usages of the words "junior" and "senior" for either to have been perceived as the core sense of which the other was a metaphorical extension, as opposed to both senses just being specific applications of a core sense that is just ungendered Latinate for "younger" and "older," with "seniority" in a hierarchy being a natural metaphorical extension of temporal seniority.

    *My impressionistic sense is that "Jr." or "Jun'r" appended to male names did not become common before the 18th century, and even then it took a while for it to beat out the rival usage "II" for a man with the same name as his father – e.g. the prominent colonial Virginian conventionally referred to as William Byrd II (1674-1744) would have been William Jr. once the conventions had fully hardened.

  11. R. Fenwick said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 10:14 am

    @mollymooly: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was named after her mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

    Given that J.W. Brewer's assertion was "it is not generally the Done Thing" (my emphasis), surely you're not suggesting that this single case is a useful counterexample to the general case. Does it does happen on occasion? Absolutely. Another famous example is Eleanor Roosevelt (born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, and named for her mother Anna Rebecca Hall). But it certainly hasn't ever been nearly as widespread a practice for women as it used to be for men in England and as it still is—though dialled up to eleven—for men in the United States.

    (In the US, at least, this naming practice is strongly correlated with the honour-shame cultural ideology of the South. Given the absence of a corresponding tendency towards matronymy for daughters, the practice appears to be a tool for the reinforcement of patriarchal social dynamics within a reputation-based or face-based social system.)

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 11:11 am

    For this native speaker of &ltlBr.E>, "not the Done Thing" means neither "never occurs" nor "has generally been rare enough that there is not as well-established a standard protocol for disambiguation". What it does, in the circles with which I am familiar, is "frowned upon in polite society".

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 11:12 am

    Oops — try again — What it does mean, in the circles with which I am familiar, is "frowned upon in polite society".

  14. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 11:13 am

    the honour-shame cultural ideology of the South

    The Grande Tragedie of John McJohn McJohn McCain.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 11:16 am

    "Polite society" is just larger in the US than in the UK, in that most people believe they belong to it. See also "middle class".

    (And even "the richest 1%". In early 2001, when it became widely talked about that Bush's tax cuts would only benefit the richest 1%, a pollster asked people if they belonged to that. 19% – nineteen – believed they did.)

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 11:59 am

    Think about David's remark above, I do wonder how many of us have any idea where we stand when it comes to national income levels. I certainly would even be able to guess into which decile I would come, and I'm not even sure I could guess into which quartile.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 12:00 pm

    Sorry, another typo — "certainly would not be able to guess …".

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 12:20 pm

    I am amused by how the study mentioned by R. Fenwick (I can only read the abstract) distinguishes within the U.S. between "honor states" and "non-honor states." The authors seem to take a somewhat negative view of "honor culture" yet they were apparently unable to come up with a good non-pejorative label for the alternative other than the cautious "non-honor," given that the word "honor" retains positive valence among ordinary speakers of English. (There has FWIW over the last century been a *lot* of migration in between the two regions of the U.S. so designated, with incomplete cultural assimilation, on both sides, of incomers from elsewhere, so ideally you would want to focus on the naming practices in each region of old-timers versus new-comers, but I suspect that it may be even harder to get the data that would allow such an analysis.)

    There are lots of claims out there that the incidence of "junior" patronym naming for sons has declined significantly in the U.S. over the last 50 or so years, which is consistent with my own anecdotal impressions, but I'm not sure than anyone has high-quality data and of course there may well have been regional variations in the rate of decline.

  19. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 12:36 pm

    @Jenny Chu: There was a prominent sportswriter of a century or so back whose legal name was Andrew Rankin, but was invariably called "June" Rankin for the same reason.

  20. Julian said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 5:20 pm

    Overheard:
    "I need to buy a present for an eight-year-old girl. A book, perhaps?"
    "Are they a reader?"

  21. R. Fenwick said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 1:33 am

    @David Marjanović: The Grande Tragedie of John McJohn McJohn McCain.

    Literally just last night I was watching a medical documentary about an case of streptococcus toxic shock syndrome that included interviews with physician Dr Marion Lawler II and his son Marion Lawler III regarding the patient in question, the infant son and grandson Marion Lawler IV. Also, it was not all that long ago that I discovered Tom Cruise's full name is Thomas Cruise Mapother, and that he's the son of three previous Thomas Cruise Mapothers.

    Though two cases do not a dataset make, given the Brown et al. study I mentioned, it's interesting to note that the Lawlers were Texan, and though Tom Cruise was born in New York, his parents were from Kentucky.

  22. R. Fenwick said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 2:01 am

    @J. W. Brewer: I am amused by how the study mentioned by R. Fenwick (I can only read the abstract) distinguishes within the U.S. between "honor states" and "non-honor states."

    I can send you the paper if you're interested, which outlines their sociological methods in detail. The state-based divisions were a necessary simplification, given that society-wide data on their predictive variables for honour-shame cultures (e.g. religiosity, rurality, wealth, capital punishment, military service, suicidality…), drawn from other studies on such cultures, are generally collected and available in the US on a state-by-state basis.

    The authors seem to take a somewhat negative view of "honor culture" yet they were apparently unable to come up with a good non-pejorative label for the alternative other than the cautious "non-honor," given that the word "honor" retains positive valence among ordinary speakers of English.

    "Culture of honor" [sic] is itself an attempt by the authors at providing a less apparently pejorative view. Previous sociological study along these lines more commonly uses terms with negative connotation, having referred to a distinction between "guilt" and "shame" cultures.

    There are lots of claims out there that the incidence of "junior" patronym naming for sons has declined significantly in the U.S. over the last 50 or so years, which is consistent with my own anecdotal impressions,

    Probably part of the more general diversification of naming during that half-century, which has been demonstrated empirically. (See Lieberson, S., and Lynn, F. B. 2003 Popularity as a taste: An application to the naming process. Onoma, 38, 235-276.) And no doubt the migration you talk about earlier has a certain amount to do with that.

    With that said, that migration has still not been enough to disintegrate honour-shame dynamics of these regions. Hypothesising that honour dynamics may also extend to threats against collective honour, the aforementioned Brown et al. study also noted a statistically significant increase in the use of patronyms in the two years after 9/11 as compared to the two years before that, but only in those states where a culture of honour had been identified. No such increase was visible anywhere in matronyms, nor in patronyms in the non-honour-shame-culture states.

  23. Chris Partridge said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 2:15 am

    ‘That second brother-disambiguating sense in the OED is not current in 21st-century AmEng at all although I believe I may have seen it in old novels set in English boarding schools.’

    Use of senior/junior or major/minor/minimus in English schools was necessary not for dynastic reasons but because all boys (and girls) were known by surname only so some way of distinguishing between siblings was necessary.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 2:50 am

    I too always interpreted the major/minor/minimus convention as being intended to differentiate between siblings, Chris, but if you are correct in your assertion that "all boys (and girls) were known by surname only" (which I have no reason to doubt, at least in the case of boys), then I have to ask "would (or could) it also have been used to differentiate between unrelated children who shared a single surname" ? I recall from my own schooldays that when the register was called, surnames alone were used unless there were two or more with a single surname, in which case both names were used (in my case, "Philip Taylor" followed by "Roger Taylor").

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    For hardcore patronymicity in the U.S., I can point to Pierre Samuel du Pont VI, grandson of the just-deceased Pierre Samuel du Pont IV, who was governor of my home state for a significant chunk of my childhood. According to a story about his wedding last year, Pierre VI "works for Brainshark, Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., as a data strategist," which seems rather undynastic. Wherever you draw your "isogloss" between honor and non-honor culture in the U.S., the du Ponts are going to be (maybe just barely) on the non- side of it.

    I have met in person William Howard Taft V (family also from the non- side of the line), but I don't know if he has a son and if so whether the name has been passed on for another iteration.

    But to loop back to the earlier theme, it would IMHO be really weird to treat the specific use of roman numerals in gendered/patriarchal naming conventions as a reason to disuse roman numerals in unrelated contexts on account of the naming convention making them covertly gendered.

  26. Haamu said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 9:16 am

    Sure, freshman is gendered and junior/senior may have exclusionary overtones for some (although for me the issue there is much more related to age than gender).

    But the best reason to retire the whole scheme hasn’t been stated: sophomore is an out-and-out insult.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 11:19 am

    Oxford/Cambridge and I believe other UK universities have long used "fresher" where American universities have used "freshman," with "fresher" dating back to the 19th century if not earlier, and thus not originally motivated by concerns about gendered language being exclusionary. Especially given the historical pattern of American universities aping Oxford and Cambridge in all sorts of ways, including terminology, I'm not sure why that off-the-shelf ungendered alternative is not finding favor. You might worry that that old-timey Anglophile aesthetic vibe would no longer appeal to Today's Young People interested in diversity/multiculturalism/postmodernism/etc., but I have been reliably informed that incoming students at my old alma mater generally like it because it reminds them of Hogwarts.

  28. Chris Partridge said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 2:18 am

    Philip, yes, my schooldays were so long ago it was surname only. Initials were the other obvious way to distinguish siblings of course, but I suspect some headmasters liked to emphasise the dynastic element. Neither system was any good with the twins in my class as no one could tell the apart anyway.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment