Their History

Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.

We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).

Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)

Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”

Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.

But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:

“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother—
Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3

Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.

So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)

“The Spaniard

Must now confess, if they have any goodness

The trial just and noble.”

This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?

But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.

So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?

“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”

Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.

That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New Oxford Dictionary of English.

The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.

Fernanda Fernandez

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of fairly recent events and people in LGBTQIA+ history — heck, I just wrote about two people who are still alive. In a row! So, to veer away from people with Instagram accounts, I’ve decided to go much further back. After all, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to detail queer history back to the beginning of human history. I’m not going quite that far back today though.

Fernandez is not by any means the first intersex person in the world — intersex people appear in Sumerian mythology that predates written language and is consistently mentioned as being a thing that exists in virtually all societies thereafter. But Fernandez is one of the earliest intersex people who’s name has survived in records to today.

There are no pictures of Fernanda Fernandez so here’s a picture of Capuchin nuns that I borrowed from Wikipedia.

Now, Fernanda Fernandez was born in 1755 in either Baza or Zújar — but definitely in Granada in Spain. There is nothing written or discussed about her childhood up until she took her vows to become a nun of the Capuchin Poor Clares in April of 1774 — at which time she was either seventeen or eighteen, depending on who you ask. It really depends on what month she was born in, but there doesn’t seem to be any decisive record of that.

In 1787, Fernandez began noticing that she appeared to be becoming more masculine in some ways and was starting to get sinful lustful feelings for her fellow nuns. Fernandez was a devout believer, was not trying to rock the boat, and just wanted to do right by society and God. So she reported it and asked to be separated from the other nuns. At first, everyone assumed she was going crazy. Nobody did anything.

Worried she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptations she was feeling, she started actively avoiding the other nuns. She also started a routine of strict penitence, flagellating herself spiked chains. (I guess there is kind of a case to be made that she was going crazy, but it’s probably only because people thought she was going crazy.) Doctors, to help her deal with the craziness, prescribed regular bloodletting. Let’s just take a moment to be thankful that nowadays, doctors who incorrectly think someone is going crazy usually just prescribe pills.

Within the next several years, Fernandez started becoming visibly more masculine. So an investigation was begun. She was isolated from the rest of the nuns. Doctors were called in, theologians, even the archbishop. She explained again what was happening, but this time they actually listened (kind of). A midwife examined her and discovered what she’d been telling everyone all along — that she was developing male characteristics. Including a functional, albeit small, penis. They declared her a man and took steps to make that declaration formal and legally binding.

On January 21, 1792 Fernandez was expelled from the nunnery — technically, this is what she’d asked for back in 1787, but she certainly wasn’t happy about it. She actually liked being a nun. On February 11, she was formally released from her vows and sent back to her parents, who were definitely living in Zújar at that time. (What’s kind of amazing is, this is all pretty well documented except for like who are the parents?) She was forced to change her name to “Fernando” and required to begin wearing exclusively male clothes. Despite this, she continued to occupy her time with the duties and skills of women of the time, and missed her life in the nunnery. Nothing else is recorded about her after 1792, so it’s a little tough to say, but it seems like she identified as a woman, and was likely pretty freaked out about growing a penis in her twenties. I’m sure none of what she went through helped with that.

What’s interesting is the follow-up. There are other cases in Europe and even Spain where medical examinations revealed similar findings, and it was argued that the person in question was committing fraud, pretending to be something they weren’t, and had always been the sex that was uncovered. But no such arguments were made in Fernanda’s case — it was widely acknowledged and accepted that she had been a woman and changed into a man. This is something doctors of the time widely stated was impossible. But they never denied that it happened to Fernanda Fernandez and given where medical science was at the time, that was pretty open minded of them.