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.

James Barry

Like so many historical figures, James Barry‘s gender identity is kind of a mystery because the language and understanding we have of gender today has really evolved immensely since the 19th century. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident that James Barry was transgender and not just trying to escape the confines that came with being a woman in Regency era Britain. I’ll justify that as we go through this.

He was the second child born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley in Ireland, though there is very little information about his early life. He was named Margaret Anne Bulkley and lived as a girl until at least age 19. What little information can be found and verified seems to indicate he was born in 1789 — for instance, a letter dated January 14, 1805 states that the young “Miss Bulkley” was fifteen years old at the time. The date of birth is a bit confusing, because there are also sources that indicate he may have been born in 1792, 1795, or 1799. These are probably due to Barry lying about his age through his military career.

There is also some indication that Barry was assaulted as a child, resulting in a pregnancy. The child this produced is theorized to be the youngest Bulkley child, Juliana, who was raised as Barry’s sister.

The Bulkley family had serious financial difficulties — and ultimately they concocted a scheme to produce a better income. “Margaret Anne” adopted the name James Barry and posed as the nephew of the Irish artist James Barry (who was Mary-Ann Bulkley’s brother). Along with his mother (his “aunt” in letters), Barry boarded a ship bound for the University of Edinburgh in 1809. It is from the envelope of one letter from this trip that researchers were able to trace Barry back to his early childhood — the back of the envelope discreetly bore the words “Miss Bulkley, 14 December.” After this point, Barry never permitted anyone to see him change clothes and lived as a man both publicly and privately.

Barry began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Due to his effeminate facial features, many students believed Barry to be a pre-pubescent boy (like, some kind of prodigy, I guess?) and the university even tried to stop him from taking the final exams because they believed he was too young. The Earl of Buchan intervened, and Barry graduated in 1812 and almost immediately enrolled in courses at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. On July 2, 1813, Barry passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons.

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Not the most flattering portrait that’s ever been painted, is it?

On July 6, 1813 Barry was commissioned as a hospital assistant in the British army. For anyone keeping track, that’s a four day turn around on graduating school and landing a job. Barry was initially stationed at Chelsea, and then sent to Plymouth to serve at the Royal Military Hospital there. He was promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces (which apparently is the medical equivalent of a lieutenant) on December 7 of 1815.

In 1816, Barry was sent to Cape Town, South Africa. Barry’s previous benefactor, the Earl of Buchan, had sent a letter of introduction to the governor Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset. Barry quickly impressed the governor’s family by treating his ailing daughter. Barry was essentially welcomed as a member of the family, and in 1822 Somerset promoted Barry to Colonial Medical Inspector — which was a pretty massive jump in station and in responsibility. Barry spent the next decade significantly improving conditions — especially for slaves, prisoners, prostitutes and the mentally ill. Barry even made a priority out of improving the conditions in hospitals and leper colonies. Barry is notable for being one of the handful of medical professionals at the time who understood that humanitarian conditions — particularly hygiene, diet, and fresh air — were vital to sustain a healthy population and prevent the spread of disease.

Although he used excellent bedside manner with patients, Barry was otherwise outspoken, impatient, brash, and often tactless — particularly when it came to criticizing other people when it came to medical concerns and policies. Not surprisingly, a lot of people did not like Barry because of this but his close friendship with the governor shielded him from consequences. That’s probably a large factor in one major event that took place in 1824: Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset was accused of “buggering” Barry. An investigation and a trial followed.

Now, buggering — which, of course, was the act of homosexual intercourse — was still very illegal in the British Empire and could still carry the death penalty. Nevertheless, nobody even seems to have considered that Barry was biologically female and Barry certainly didn’t offer up this information. This is one reason that I’m convinced that Barry identified as a man — Barry never came forward to save Somerset. Somerset also never revealed anything, even though it’s considered probable that he knew.

Though the case failed to prove any buggering, it proved humiliating for both Somerset and Barry. Barry managed to redeem himself in June of the same year — by performing a Cesarean section (without anesthesia) where both the mother and child lived. This was one of the first times this ever done and was the first time this had been accomplished anywhere in the British Empire or, as far as we know, in Africa. This feat easily secured Barry’s position as the best doctor in the colony.

On November 22, 1827 Barry was promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. The following year, he was assigned a new posting in Mauritius. After only a year there, Barry took a leave because Lord Somerset had fallen in. Barry personally cared for Somerset until his death in 1831, at which point Barry was sent to Jamaica and then, in 1836, to Saint Helena.

Barry’s abrasive personality had not mellowed out over the years, and while stationed at Saint Helena he came into some sort of, let’s say, “gentleman’s disagreement” with another officer that resulted in Barry facing a court martial that ultimately found him not guilty.

In 1840, Barry was promoted to Principal Medical Officer and assigned to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the West Indies. His assignment was to improve the conditions of the soldiers stationed there. This posting was apparently uneventful until Barry contracted yellow fever in 1845 and returned to England on sick leave. After being cleared for duty in 1846, Barry was stationed in Malta where he quickly ruffled feathers by — apparently — sitting in a seat in church that was reserved for clergy. This led to a formal reprimand, but Barry was less concerned with hurt feelings and more concerned with the looming threat of cholera. The disease ultimate did breakout, despite Barry’s efforts, and he was called on to treat it.

Although the cholera epidemic lasted until 1860, Barry’s superiors sent him to Corfu in 1851. On May 16, they promoted him to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. Barry requested to be posted in Crimea, but the request was denied. In turn, Barry requested a leave and traveled to Crimea anyways. While there, Barry had a run-in with Florence Nightingale. The only descriptions I can find of the event come from Nightingale, but it sounds like Barry, on horseback, confronted her about something while she was (I’m guessing) crossing camp either to or from showers because she was basically naked. Whatever transpired, it left Nightingale with a deep dislike of Barry, whom she later described as “the most hardened creature [she] had ever met.”

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James Barry and John Joseph Danson

On September 25, 1857 Barry received a promotion to Inspector General of Hospitals and was posted to Canada. He remained in this post, improving healthcare particularly for the poor, until he was forcibly retired from military service because of age and illness on July 19, 1859. He returned to London, where he lived quietly with only his servant John Joseph Danson (who had been with Barry since his first posting in South Africa) and a poodle named Psyche. Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. Shortly thereafter, Danson disappeared — but is believed to have gone to Jamaica.

Despite having left strict instructions that his body not be examined in any capacity after his death, the truth of Barry’s biological sex was discovered. The physician who had issued the death certificate, Major D. R. McKinnon, had written on the certificate that Barry was a male. Afterwards, a woman — who is believed to have been laying out Barry’s body for burial — discovered Barry was biologically female and showed signs of having given birth at a young age. She attempted to use the secret to blackmail McKinnon. However, Barry had no known surviving family and McKinnon was not especially concerned (stating that he had figured Barry was a “hermaphrodite” but that it was “none of [his] business”), so he shrugged her off. The woman leaked this information to the press. A number of people responded by claiming to have known it all along, and Florence Nightingale responded by writing a scathing letter about how much she didn’t care what he was, she still really didn’t like him.

The British Army, in an effort to save face as women were allowed to be neither officers nor doctors and Barry had been both, sealed all records about Barry for the next hundred years. Isobel Rae, a history, gained access to the records in the 1950’s and ultimately pieced together Barry’s history from before he transitioned.

There’s a lot of discussion regarding whether or not Barry was truly transgender. Some would argue that because he transitioned with the help of his family in order to financially aid his family means it was all an elaborate ruse. Obviously, I’m firmly in the other camp that he was — living as a man even in private, not even breaking from his gender expression to prove a friend innocent of buggery, and trying to maintain that gender identity even in death despite not having any surviving family — to me, that all indicates someone who vehemently identified as a man.