August 25, 2013

"Themself."

Is it a word yet?

This is a question that occurred to me while writing the first sentence of the last paragraph of the previous post. It seems like a horrible non-word, but it's going to have to become a word. The only question is when. I hate to tell you. Unless one is willing to make oneself look bizarrely stilted, one is going to need to resign oneself to "themself" achieving wordhood.

ADDED: Some people in the comments are going on about how "you" is used to refer to one person, because we don't have a singular second person pronoun, and "them" used in the singular is a solution to the problem of lacking a gender neutral third person pronoun to refer to one person. But that shows why "themself" will become a word: "Yourself" is already a word! You don't even notice how it feels wrong to say "yourselves" when you're talking about only one person. You instinctively know to change the "-selves" to "-self." The same thing will have to happen with "themselves."

20 comments:

RiverRat said...

Yuck!

EDH said...

"Anyone who considers themselves to be a beer drinker..."

How do you turn himself/herself/themselves into a sexually ambiguous yet still singular referral?"


How about: Those who consider themselves to be a beer drinker...

Can't you reference the individual while recognizing that there may be more than one in the population?

rmarkob said...

I haven't come across "themself" yet. But I have become increasingly aware of the trend, especially among young people, to say "you guys" as the collective pronoun for any group of people. This has led to an incredibly stilted construction for the possessive: "We'd love to get together with you guys - should we meet at your guyses' house or ours?"

CWJ said...

Sorry,

I'm not seeing the problem with "themselves." The plural-singular internal contradiction alone should disqualify "themself" from usage. No?

Uncle Pavian said...

Can't wait to hear the diktat on "theyseffs"

gbarto said...

Once upon a time we had thou. The Spanish have Usted (Vuestra Merced-your grace) and the French say vous to a single person (instead of tu) in formal situations. Pronouns are a linguistic shorthand, used to capture the relationship between unspecified nouns and the other elements of a sentence. It shouldn't be that surprising that we would change or modify them as we change the way we conceptualize of the interactions between human beings described in our sentences. Thou died to eradicate a distinction of formality we no longer wished to make. Themself will come to eradicate a distinction of gender we no longer wish to make. In the moment this seems like a strange and peculiar thing to rearrange something that seemed pretty fundamental in grammar class. But we've done it before.

Ann Althouse said...

@CWJ Here's the sentence I was writing when I saw the problem:

"What I like about these 2 projects is that they could give all sorts of people an idea of something they can do when confronted with any current photograph of themselves that they don't like. "

I did what you say seems just fine, but I don't like it.

I tried to work around it:

"What I like about these 2 projects is that they could give all sorts of people an idea of something you can do when confronted with any current photograph of yourself that you don't like."

"What I like about these 2 projects is that they could give all sorts of people an idea of something one can do when confronted with any current photograph of oneself that they don't like."

Actually, I think the one with "you" is best, but mostly because I'd already used the word "they" to refer to the 2 projects.

Marty Keller said...

While it's true that language, like the climate, is dynamic, it's also true that our public culture has been enduring a remarkable dumbing down in the past forty years(granted, not from a particularly high place to begin with). I'll stick with Mark Twain and his injunctions in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Mistakes" and avoid illogical grammatical usages as much as possible (not that I'm great shakes at eschewing surplusage).

Hagar said...

"What I like about these 2 projects is that they could give all sorts of people an idea of something one can do when confronted with any current photograph of oneself that one doesn't like."

CWJ said...

@Ann Althouse.

I saw your referenced sentence before commenting, but hadn't clicked through to see that the "problem" was a gender issue.

That said, I agree with you that your "you" version works best. It captures the fact that while the idea applies to people plural, applying the idea is done individually.

Regarding the gender issue, I've never considered "him or herself" so burdensome or stilted as to require a new word, much less an internally contradictory one.

Michael said...

Obviously the problem goes away if the antecedent is plural ("people who consider themselves"). Otherwise English uses "himself," which has always been understood as gender inclusive. Why introduce an awkward solecism to solve a problem nobody really has? Or if you must, use "yourself." You could even say "if you consider yourself to be..." which serves and is actually correct.

kimsch said...

I prefer he/him/himself when speaking of an unknown singular. Feminists insisted that using the masculine was non-inclusive. We had to go "gender neutral" on all sorts of words, chair-"person" instead of chairman, Mail carrier instead of mailman, server instead of waiter or waitress, flight attendant instead of steward or stewardess. Even there in Madison, the city has Alders instead of Aldermen.

Romance languages have gendered nouns, English does not. There's no reason why the masculine can't be used for an unknown except that the feminists felt excluded. No one was excluding them, but they felt it, so it must have been so.

Rocco said...

Regarding thou and you...

Originally, thou was the 2nd person singular, and you was the 2nd person plural. Similar to the French vous, the 2nd person plural became used as a polite, formal way of addressing a single person. The loss of thou represents an increase, not a decrease of formality and politeness in the language.

At Sir Walter Raleigh's trial, the prosecutor belittled Raleigh by saying "I thou thee, thou traitor" implying he was not worthy of the respect of being addressed with "you".

Certain religious groups kept using thou as a way to emphasize a personal relationship with God, rather than the view of Him as a remote, powerful being that was more common at the time.

Smilin' Jack said...

Here's the sentence I was writing when I saw the problem:

"What I like about these 2 projects is that they could give all sorts of people an idea of something they can do when confronted with any current photograph of themselves that they don't like. "


There's nothing wrong with that sentence.

I did what you say seems just fine, but I don't like it.

There's a lot wrong with that one.

The Godfather said...

I understand the desire for gender inclusive language, and I generally support it. In a religious context I've been told by a number of women that they were turned off by the language of the Bible (as then translated), which they felt excluded them.

What I hope is that one day our society will have so embraced and internalized equality of the sexes that we can go back to the old use an accepted English gender-inclusive pronoun, whether that's the old usage of the masculine to include the feminine, or a new usage of the feminine to include the masculine. Either one would be preferable to forcing us to use plurals when we really mean singulars.

And a little off the point, modern gender inclusive translations of the Bible have Jesus say to his disciples, "I will make you fish for people", which just doesn't mean the same things as, "I will make you fishers of men", does it?

Gabriel Hanna said...

The gender-inclusive pronoun issue is rooted in linguistic ignorance.

In German the pronoun "sie" serves for "she", "they", or "you", with the context making it clear which is meant. I have never heard of this usage being called sexist.

Furthermore, nouns that refer to non-human animals and objects all take different pronouns, some to male, some to female, some neuter. A cat or a university is given a female pronoun. A dog or a mountain gets a male pronoun. A boat or a young girl gets a neuter pronoun. I have never heard this called sexist.

Grammatical gender has little to do with male/female gender. It is common to hundreds of inflected languages around the world. It has jack shit to do with patriarchy. To think so is the resoundly discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language constrains thought.

tim maguire said...

Like it or not, a singular "them" is a linguistic necessity because English needs but does not have a non-gender specific third person singular. Sure, every sentence could be rewritten but that can be a lot of effort and therefore unrealistic when an easier alternative exists.

"Themself" is ugly and clunky, but it is better than a singular "themselves". It's no great disaster if it catches on.

tim maguire said...

The claim that using he/him for a non-gender specific third person is sexist is persuasive in my opinion.

The complaint is that if you are hearing a description of an event or idea with a hypothetical person and that person is repeatedly referred to as he/him, then in your mind you are picturing a man, rarely or ever a woman, and you think about that person in male terms, with male values and tendencies. That introduces a falsehood into the description that works against women.

It may (or may not) be a minor problem, but who cares how minor the problem is when it can be fixed by simply using a new term? English was not handed down by God, it is not a sin to change it.

Indigo Red said...

"Themself" is a perfectly good word and has been so for a very long time.
The standard reflexive form corresponding to they and them is themselves, as in they can do it themselves. The singular form themself, first recorded in the 14th century, has re-emerged in recent years corresponding to the singular gender-neutral use of they, as in this is the first step in helping someone to help themself. My family has used "themself" for generations; my sister and I still use it.

Indigo Red said...

To the grammatical gender vs human gender question: words have gender, humans have sex.