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.

Lord Byron

This one is going to be long — can’t help it, he did a lot. (In fact, I have cut out so much of this it’s kind of embarrassing. I was just trying to focus in on the gay stuff and the sexy stuff.) He’s also kind of my historical crush — spoiler: I have the worst taste in men. I give you: the poet Lord Byron. Now, he’s from a time before we really had the understanding of sexuality that we have now, but I can say three things for certain. Lord Byron was not heterosexual. Lord Byron was not homosexual. Lord Byron was very sexual.

(c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lord Byron was born on January 22, 1788 CE in London to parents Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron Gordon and Catherine Gordon — Mad Jack’s second wife. They named their son George Gordon Byron. Between a rocky relationship with his unstable mother, his dad leaving them and then dying in France in 1791 (although, honestly, having read about the dad they were probably better off), and being born with a deformed foot, he definitely wasn’t winning any awards for greatest childhood ever. In 1798, at ten years old, George inherited the title of Baron Byron from his great-uncle (on his father’s side). The title came with very little money — and two properties, one of which his great-uncle had illegally sold (and most of the money Byron inherited was spent on a legal battle concerning that) and the other of which, Newstead Abbey, was run-down to the point of being practically ruins.

As he reached adolescence he was sent to the school of William Glennie. Glennie and Catherine fought constantly, particularly over control of Byron’s schedule. It was around this time (1800) that Byron first started to dabble in poetry — and, not so coincidentally, also around this time he discovered some of his distant cousins were like really pretty.

His mother pulled him from William Glennie’s school and enrolled Byron at Harrow in 1801. It was while he was attending Harrow that he met his cousin Mary Chaworth — and he fell for her hard. She did not return the feelings at all. In September of 1803, Byron refused to return to school because of this rejection. When he finally did return to school (the next year) he rekindled friendships with a number of boys there. He also began writing letters to his half-sister Augusta Leigh (from his dad’s first marriage). In 1805, Byron’s final year at Harrow, he began a romantic relationship with John Thomas Claridge and he would return to Harrow more than once after his graduation to visit Claridge.

After graduating Harrow, Byron began attending Trinity College in Cambridge. There he met John Edleston — who he became close to. While Byron almost certainly had romantic feelings for Edleston, it is unclear from his writings whether or not that friendship was sexual. He may have kept things PG out of respect for Edleston’s supposed innocence — or maybe he just kept his letters PG because England was getting stricter about penalizing anyone even suspected of engaging in “buggery”. The two had planned on living together, they never did.

In 1809, Byron left on “the Grand Tour” which was basically a trip around continental Europe that young British men would take when they finished college — if they could afford it. (Byron could not afford it but he managed to make it happen anyways.) His Grand Tour was a little less grand than most because the Napoleonic Wars were not great for tourism, so his tour focused primarily on the Mediterranean. Byron had a lot of motivations for escaping England at the time — he was jealous that Mary Chaworth was marrying another man, he was being pursued by creditors that he owed money to, and — according to letters written to his friend (and fellow lover-of-men) Charles Skinner Matthew — because he wanted to sleep with men somewhere less uptight than England. (And like all of Europe was pretty much less uptight than England at this point.) They ended up in Greece where Byron reportedly encountered over 200 male lovers, including Eusthathius Georgiou and a 14-year old boy named Nicolo Giraud. Details about the actual relationships are scarce but he sent Giraud to school, and bequeathed him an inheritance of 7,000 pounds (which he later canceled). He eventually wrote in a letter to his friend John Hobhouse that he was tired of “pl and opt Cs” (a code he used for homosexual intercourse), “the last thing I could be tired of”. (I can’t find any evidence that Hobhouse was even the slightest bit gay, so he was either very open-minded for the time or better at keeping his own secrets than he was at keeping Byron’s.)

After returning from his Grand Tour in 1811 and learning that Edleston had died from consumption, Byron attempted to resume his relationship with John Claridge but discovered that Claridge had grown up to be — of all terrible things — boring. Byron wrote in a letter to Hobhouse that Claridge was “a good man, a handsome man, an honourable man, a most inoffensive man, a well informed man, and a dull man, & this last damn epithet undoes all the rest.”

In 1812, the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were published and Byron became something of a celebrity. He also became — essentially — the premier male sex symbol in England at the time. He is known to have had several affairs in this time, and while I’m sure some are just rumor, I’m equally sure some happened that nobody ever heard about (especially some affairs with men!) One that definitely happened was a tumultuous affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. For months, they wrote letters to each other. Byron started calling Lady Caroline “Caro”, and she started using that as her public name — but that was the only public sign of their feelings each other. In public they feigned hatred and Caroline even described Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” — which is possibly the single greatest epithet ever uttered. Unfortunately bumper stickers didn’t exist yet so Caroline couldn’t cash in on her genius. (I, however, am thinking of getting t-shirts made.) Eventually Byron broke up with her. Caroline’s husband took her away to Ireland so she could recover, but like, you know that saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? That turned out to be true and also terrible. She became obsessed with Byron. When she came back to London in 1813, she made many very public advances to try to win him back.

Public life also brought Byron back to attention of the various people to whom he owed money. In order to solve this problem, he thought of turning back to the old Byron family book of tricks — marrying for money. He ultimately settled on marrying Annabella Millbanke who was strictly religious and seemed from the beginning to be an ill-suited match for Byron. Furthermore, she was a cousin of Caroline Lamb’s husband. (I don’t know if that was on purpose but if it was, that’s an impressive level of pettiness.) While he was going through the courting and marriage process, he was also becoming reacquainted with his half-sister Augusta and rumors that they were having an incestuous affair began to circulate. The amount of time that he and Augusta spent alone together would end up destroying his marriage, so, y’know, make of that what you will.

Millbanke brought her daughter to London in January of 1816 — leaving Byron behind — and proceedings for an official divorce began. This separation was just one of several scandals plaguing Byron’s life — rumors circulated about his crushing debt, extramarital affairs with actresses, and of course of his incestuous relationship with Augusta. In February, Lady Caroline Lamb added one more devastating scandal to the mix: she started spreading word of Byron’s sexual encounters with men. On February 12, Hobhouse brought news of the rumors to Byron’s attention. Up until this point, Byron had been planning to defend himself in court and prove that his divorce was not his fault. Hobhouse advised him this would be a massive mistake amid the rumors of sodomy. If it had come out in court that Byron had engaged in “buggery”, he might have been executed. Instead, Byron settled on a self-imposed exile. By April 25, 1816 Lord Byron left England for the rest of his life.

These events had changed Byron. He became considerably more serious — and more political — but he was also more discreet. In fact, that I can’t find any records of him being sexually involved with any men from this point on although I think we can all agree that he was probably still having same-sex affairs. (I suspect, had his memoirs not be destroyed, we’d probably know a lot more about his relationships during the next few years of his life.)

By the summer of 1816, Byron had settled at Lake Geneva with a motley crew — his personal physician John William Polidori, Percy Shelley, Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Claire and Byron had a brief affair, which resulted in his illegitimate daughter Allegra being born in 1817. His stay at Lake Geneva is mostly important, though, because of the other writers who were there: chiefly, Mary Godwin created a draft of what would become Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Also, Byron and Polidori pretty much invented the modern idea of the vampire as a sexy blood-drinker.

By the winter, Byron had moved on — settling down in Venice. He stayed in a house belonging to Marianna Segati — a married woman with whom he was having an affair. He broke it off, and started an affair with another married woman named Margarita Cogni — though he continued staying in Marianna’s house. Anyways, Cogni left her husband and moved in — a bad move because she and Byron argued constantly (and also, not his house. His ex lover’s house. Seriously.) He finally asked her to move out, and she responded by throwing herself in the canal and drowning herself.

Around 1819, he encountered the young Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli. She fell in love with Byron — despite it being three days after her wedding to the Count Guiccioli — and he asked her to elope. The two lived together in Ravenna until moving to Pisa in 1821. Around that time, Byron and Shelley worked with Leigh Hunt to create a newspaper that they called The Liberal.

In 1823, advocates for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire approached Byron looking for support. They hoped his fame would prove a valuable asset. Byron was hesitant — he did not want to abandon the Countess Guiccioli. Circumstances in her family, however, forced her to abandon him. So, Byron set sail for Greece. Byron also planned to give generously to the cause of Greek independence. To that end, he sold his remaining estate in Scotland — Rochdale Manor — for 11,250 pounds. Translated into today’s money, Byron would have been a multimillionaire — and at the time there weren’t people with Jeff Bezos’ wealth so that was way more impressive. Byron intended to spend it all on the effort to free Greece. Virtually every Greek leader wanted Byron’s money. Only one won his favor —  while others vied through a variety of tactics. Byron put his support behind Alexandros Mavrokordatos.

Meanwhile, Byron had a few distractions of his own. He pursued a relationship with his page Lukas Chalandritsanos — though Lukas was very seriously not interested and kept things very professional. Byron wrote Lukas a bunch of poems and lavished Lukas with basically anything he wanted — to no avail. But Lukas wasn’t the only person Byron was spoiling — he had begun doting on a nine year old Turkish Muslim girl named Hato, whose father had been killed by the Greeks. He considered adopting her, spent quite a bit of money on dresses for her — and when things began to get dangerous for her and her mother, he sent them away to the island of Cephalonia.

1280px-lord_byron_on_his_death-bed_c-_1826
Lord Byron on His Deathbed, by Joseph Denis Odevaere

Mavrokordatos and Byron began planning an assault on Lepanto, a fortress held by the Ottoman Empire. Although Byron had no military experience, he planned to lead the attack himself. Before they could actually follow through with this plan, however, Byron became very ill with malaria. Doctors decided bloodletting would help, because that was a thing they did back then. It didn’t help — surprise! — in fact, it made things worse. Especially because no one sterilized their medical tools. (That wasn’t so much a “medicine used to suck” thing as “Byron’s doctor sucked” thing.) He developed sepsis and a fever, and then died on April 19, 1824.

Upon his death, Byron was firmly solidified as a national hero in Greece — and his reputation in England instantly became one of reverence. The reaction caused some alarm for his friends — who wanted him to be respected in his death — and so Hobhouse, Thomas Moore, and John Murray promptly burned the only copy of his memoirs instead of publishing them. His body was embalmed in Greece (though rumors circulate that the Greeks kept his heart) and then returned to England. Massive crowds came out to view his coffin. Despite efforts by Murray’s publishing firm (and later by way too many historians) to hide Byron’s sexuality, many religious and cultural institutions of the country refused to honor Byron — Westminster Abbey did not memorialize Byron in their Poets’ Corner until 1969.

If you made it this far, congratulations. Like I said, I really cut a lot out of this so I definitely encourage you all to read up on him some more! He’s iconic, and — despite the best efforts of historians — he’s undeniably queer.

The Publick Universal Friend

Jemima_WilkinsonJemima Wilkinson — also known simply as “the Friend” (short for “the Publick Universal Friend” — was a preacher who declared independence from gender in the same year that America declared independence from Britain, and advocated for equality for all in the early years of the United States’ existence. (And since Jemima is not around to ask what pronouns to use, I’m going to be using “they/them” for the rest of this.)

Jemima Wilkinson was born on November 29, 1758 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Their parents were Quakers. Their early life appears to have been fairly uneventful until they became ill with a fever in 1776. Although they came close to death, they did recover — and declared that Jemima had died, and they had been reborn as the genderless Publick Universal Friend. The Friend not only did not identify with any gender, but was also quite openly asexual and promoted abstinence.

On October 13, less than a week after recovering from the fever, the Friend gave their first public sermon. Although the Friend’s teachings included a lot of Quaker values like pacificism, abolitionism, et cetera — they were still labeled a heretic by the Quakers. The Friend’s teachings also included sexual abstinence, being friendly to everyone, and gender equality (that’s the heretical part, if you weren’t sure). During the American Revolution, the Friend provided medical attention to soldiers on both sides of the war. Despite preaching about dressing plainly, the Friend’s outfits were a big part of what brought people out to listen to their sermons — the Friend wore the traditional black robes of the clergy, over petticoats, as well as a broad-brimmed black man’s hat and brightly colored women’s scarves.

The Friend preached throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before heading to Pennsylvania. By this time, there were a number of followers calling themselves “Universal Friends” and in 1783 the Friend organized the Society of the Universal Friends. Although the Friend only claimed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Universal Friends made claims that they were “the Messiah Reborn” and “Christ in female form”.

These claims — as well as the Friend’s flagrant challenge to the patriarchy — made the Friend a target. They were publicly slandered time and time again, especially in Philadelphia — an area rife with Quakers. In 1788, the Society of Universal Friends pooled their resources and purchased land near the northern end of Keuka Lake in New York. In March of 1790, they actually began journeying to the land they had purchased and on April 13, 1790 they officially declared the settlement of Jerusalem at that location. (Although Jerusalem is still a town, this particular part of it where they settled is now the village of “Penn Yan”. Which stands for “Pennsylvania Yankee”. Apparently.)

In 1800, was taken to court for blasphemy but — in what would be a landmark decision — it was ruled that American courts could not try people for blasphemy due to the separation of church and state. This would go on to influence the laws around the First Amendment as the United States developed.

The trouble with having a community where one of the central tenets is sexual abstinence is that the population tends to dwindle. Because like, you if you can’t have babies, you don’t replace the adults when they kick the bucket. Or, should I say, when they “leave time” — that’s how the Friend’s death was described by the Universal Friends when it happened on July 1, 1819. They were 61 years old — and in those years, they had challenged virtually every institution in this country, at it’s very beginning. I also want to note that, despite not identifying as a woman, the Friend is considered the first American-born woman to begin a religious movement (and is definitely, and more accurately, the first American-born non-binary person to begin a religious movement.)