Pack up the his & her, his & his and her & her towel sets. Find a new title for Oscar-nominated flick “Her.” Tell the indie band “She and Him” to pick a new name.
Gender-specific pronouns are becoming about as outdated as those antiquated societal requirements that foisted dresses and etiquette classes on the female persuasion and expected men to open doors and pick up date tabs.
Him, he and her are no longer. Same goes with they, them and their. Instead, meet xe, xem and xyr which are the pronouns adopted Monday by the Vancouver public school system for transgendered students and anybody else who isn’t comfortable squeezing into a traditional pronoun box. The terms are pronounced starting with a “z” sound and rhyme with their obviously oppressive gendered predecessors.
On one hand, this addition to the lexicon a good thing. The English language is an ever-changing creature but doesn’t offer up much in the way of genderless terms. This leaves us paid scribes challenged to avoid using “they” instead of the clunky “his or her” to be inclusive or when one doesn’t know if the subject is male or female. Also, perhaps more relevant to the masses, think of how many more points options there will be on Scrabble and Words With Friends thanks to these new starts-with-x word additions. Even those digging their heels in against equality and neutrality have to get behind the idea of vocabulary domination.
On the other hand, this attempt to be inclusive frankly comes across a little weird as though we are taking the made-up words from “A Clockwork Orange” and other futuristic literature and formally anointing them as new entries into dictionaries and writing stylebooks.
The Vancouver school system is not alone in seeking an alternative to the traditional terms for men and women. Last year, Sweden added the word “hen” to its national encyclopedia as its official third gender-neutral pronoun alongside the male “han” and female “hon.” Brighton, in Britain, replaced gender-specific titles like “Miss” and “Mister” with a universal “Mx” or “Mixter” which at least looks cooler by virtue of that “x.”
What these towns and school districts are trying to do is admirable. Gender isn’t quite so black and white in society anymore as transgendered individuals rightfully find more acceptance and others across the spectrum decide they feel more comfortable with a different label. But is widespread use of these pronouns really going to catch on?
Remember how cranky some folks got over changing marriage licenses to from “bride” and “groom” to “spouse one” and “spouse two” and that wasn’t even a physical definition. This is probably the same group that still talks about mailmen and stewardesses. But even the most open-minded still secretly likes to know where others fit. Recall the old Saturday Night Live skit about Pat, a character nobody could identify as male or female and who offered no clue by what he or she — xe! — said.
The debate on whether gender-neutral pronouns should eventually be adopted across the board, even for those who concretely identify as male or female, won’t be settled any time soon. Opponents will claim a hidden agenda. Supporters will pull out studies. Everybody will march. The idea will either catch fire or fizzle out. But in the end, it will likely just remain a xe said, xe said situation. Or is that xe said, xyr said?
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. Follow Michelle on Twitter @michellemdurand What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.