A brief history of nonbinary neopronoun nomenclature
Posted August 10, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
For queer anthropologists and trans etymologists alike, the gaining public acceptance of gender neutral pronouns is both exciting and tragic, as it took way too long to get here. Transgender and nonbinary people have existed throughout history, subsequently, so have gender neutral pronouns—because language is always evolving. We could talk all day about how language shapes our conceptualization of gender, and vice versa. Consider that some languages, like Thai, have highly specific pronoun use, whereas the Swahili literally do not have pronouns.1 But today, we're going to explore contemporary Western neopronouns, and why they matter.
In English, we use third-person pronouns whenever we reference someone other than who is speaking or listening, implementing the generic “he,” generic “she,” and singular “they.” When we look deeper at “they,” we open the door to gender neutral pronouns, which include any pronoun that has no gender connotation. Grammatically, gender neutral pronouns are called epicenes.
Stepping into our time machine, we can leap back and find Anglo-Saxons using both “a” and “ou” as nominative gender neutral pronouns.2 Leaping forward to 1858 and we’ll see the composer Charlese Crozat Converse working with thon/thons/thonself— terms later included in certain editions of Miriam Webster’s International Dictionary.3
Leap again to 1920, and we’ll find David Lindsay coining the term “ae” as a pronoun in their novel A Voyage to Arcturus, beginning the storied tradition of gender exploration in scifi.4 Now, if we keep the time machine running from the ‘70s all the way through the ‘90s, we’ll see whole new epicenes flying by. We’re talking about ve/ver/vis, xe/xem/xyr, ey/em/eir, and hu/hum/hus. There’s even person pronouns like per/per/pers.2,5
This explosion of creative neopronouns is attributable to the swirling union of queer and feminist countercultures, subcultures, and online-cultures branching out at the time via zines and the internet. Quite notably, a mathematician in the ‘90s named Michael Spivak introduced “e” as a pronoun, using e/em/eirs in their software manual The Joy of Tex. Revitalizing the conversation, the Spivak Pronouns gained a lot of popularity in online communities like LambdaMOO. Chat rooms and forums created a massive opportunity for LGBTQ people to connect, explore, experiment, and even rewrite the very language of gender itself. Not long thereafter, in 1998, Kate Bornstein included ze and hir in My Gender Workbook.
Observing the vast array of gender constructs, the phrase “gender neutral pronouns” expanded into “gender inclusive pronouns.” Some bloggers use the terms synonymously, while others write “gender neutral/inclusive pronouns” whenever discussing the overall topic. As always when it comes to language, the preference is largely generational, regional, and personal, much in the same way that people assemble the acronym LGBT or GLBT depending on where they grew up, when they grew up, and who they grew into.
Taking our time machine to the early 2010s and we find people introducing the phrase “nonbinary pronouns” as LGBTQ culture started to gain traction on Tribe.net and Tumblr. Changes were made, and the phrase “preferred pronouns” was scrapped as poor word choice since pronouns aren’t a “preference” but an actuality. Instead, it is far simpler, and infinitely more accurate, to ask: "What are your pronouns?"
In contemporary English, they/them/theirs remains the most widely known use of gender neutral pronouns, yet it's important to understand that they're not the only epicene on the block. Some people have more than one set of pronouns, going by he/they or she/they. Some have context dependent pronouns, especially if they're polygender and have more than one gender identity, in which case they may use she/he/they and/or all combination thereof. Likewise, if a person hasn't fully come out, they may use different pronouns sets with their family, let's say, than they do with their friends.
Also, just because they/them/theirs is gaining recognition in cisgender circles, neopronouns are always, and continue to be valid.
One of the more nuanced nonbinary visibility issues regards those who do not use they/them/their yet feel like xe have to have xyr identity recognized. Since many nonbinary people have fought long and hard to bring they/them/their into common parlance, a nonbinary person who uses xe/xem/xyr may feel like xe have to play along with a nonbinary-norm so as not to get left by the wayside.
To recap, third person pronouns, epicenes, gender neutral pronouns, gender inclusive pronouns, neopronouns, and nonbinary pronouns largely refer to the use of any pronoun beyond “he” or “she,” with subtle distinctions therein. These differences won’t usually matter outside of writing a paper or having a late night rant with some nitpicky friends, but they’re worth knowing—especially if you’re studying trans and nonbinary subjects. Admittedly, there's a lot to pronouns, but in the end, the rules for the road are really quite simple.
1. Always respect people's pronouns, whatever they are.
2. Never deliberately misgender someone. Misgendering a person is an oppressive and violent act.
3. One on one, it's typically okay to ask someone their pronouns. It can help if you introduce yours first.
4. Inviting people to share their pronouns in group situations can be nice, but never make it mandatory. Not everyone may feel comfortable disclosing.
5. If you do misgender someone accidentally, a quick self-correction is all that’s needed to continue the conversation with everyone’s dignity intact.
1. Murray, S.O., Roscoe, W. (1998). Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York, NY: Palgrave Publishers Ltd.
2. Baron, D. (1986) Grammar and Gender, New Haven: Yale University Press
3. Mirriam Webster. "We added a gender-neutral pronoun in 1934. Why have so few people heard of it?" Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/third-person-gender-neutr…
4. Lindsay, D. (1920) A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Methuen and Co., Ltd.
5. American Heritage (1996) The American Heritage Book of English Usage. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
6. Spivak, M. (1990) The Joy of TeX: A Gourmet Guide to Typesetting with the AMS-TeX Macro package. Rhode Island: The American Mathematical Society
7. Bornstein, K. (1998) My Gender Workbook. New York: Routledge