We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun, Part 2

Relearning is challenging for the aging brain!

It is sadly true that, as one ages, the brain become less adaptable. New languages are harder to acquire, for example, but that doesn’t even begin to encompass the difficulties inherent in the aging brain. For instance, years ago I knew how to tie a bow—any bow; ribbons, shoelaces—so that it was always perfectly straight and equal. I could do this without thinking. Now I must stop before tying a bow to intentionally review the technique that prevents it from coming out lopsided and uneven.

So it’s often with trepidation that I approach all the new nuances of language and interaction. I find pronouns (and their accompanying verbs—how does one connect the pronouns formerly of multiple reference, they and them, with their attached verbs? Does one use “is”, for instance? Or “are”? But I digress….) The real problem is, of course, that for upwards of 67 years, I’d used only she/he, him/her. Relearning the use of a pronoun of multiple reference to indicate an individual is essentially to learn a new language, and therefore (as an aging person who can’t always remember what I ate for breakfast today), challenging.

Never was this made plainer to me than when I, in 2021, decided to revisit a church that I’d briefly attended years before.

Unfortunately, the non-denominational churches which I preferred were no longer available to me; the area where one was located had deteriorated badly, and I felt uncomfortable going there alone, while another had closed completely. Of the two Unitarian Universalist churches that I might have chosen, one was distant and almost devoid of parking, while I found the other to be sadly unwelcoming to newcomers.

So I decided to revisit a Christian denomination church I’d briefly attended, recalling it as a place of teaching, rather than preaching, an ecumenical lesson.

The church seemed much as I’d remembered, and I found a lot to appreciate in the “kindness and courtesy” message. The congregation was invited to a reception after the service, and I decided to attend. A welcoming committee noted new faces, and I was handed off to a small group of people of varying ages who fetched me a cup of coffee and kindly invited me to sit with them.

I noted one member of the group whose gender seemed indeterminate. Clothing, hair, face—nothing gave one a clue, and I, confused by a series of quickfire introductions (never my strength, anyway, putting names to faces and remembering them), couldn’t recall having been told the individual’s name. Conversation in the little group flowed easily, though, so I avoided putting my foot in my mouth by the simple expedient of not addressing the individual directly.

But when I went to pour myself another cup of coffee, one of the group members accompanied me and said softly, “I just wanted to mention that we’re all very careful of pronouns for Chell.”

I’d just taken a sip from my fresh cup, but somehow managed not to spit coffee all over myself and my companion. “Chell”, you see, was the slang that all my older Italian relatives used for “penis”. Coughing, I windmilled one hand for my companion to continue while choking out the words, “That’s an unusual name.”

“Their deadname is Chelsea,” he explained. “But here’s the thing: Chell can’t stand to be misgendered. If you use the wrong pronoun, they’ll cut you out entirely—refuse to speak to you or even acknowledge that you exist.”

“I see,” I said slowly. “Well, thank you for warning me. I would not want to upset, uh, Chell.” (Nor chuchee nor ookee, either—and, no, I don’t know how the words are spelled; I just know how to pronounce my family’s Italian slang and the various body parts to which the words refer!)

I returned to the group, but kept to myself the thoughts churning madly in my brain, which had nothing to do with this individual’s unfortunate choice of name. My deliberations went more along the line of, “Well, Chell is obviously too young to comprehend how challenging individuals of my age find it to adapt to this mangling of English grammar as was once beaten into us by ruler-wielding, knuckle-slamming nuns. And, honestly, if Chell wants to cut me dead and loftily ignore me, rather than gently correct any misuse of a personal pronoun, well, I’ve been dumped by better and more important people over the course of a long lifetime. And what was that in today’s message about making the choice to be kind?!”

Not needing such dissonance in my life, I smiled at but didn’t interact with that group again in subsequent after-service coffee hours, and, finding I wasn’t really as happy with the church as I’d hoped, attended only a few more services before quitting entirely.

But, as I’ve said before in these essays: We really need a gender-free pronoun upon which everyone can agree; one which has never been associated with either female, male, or multiple reference.

And, for the love of heaven, if your name is Chell, don’t ever associate with old Italian immigrants!

You might also enjoy “We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun” from June 23, 2021. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

It’s a Peculiar Little Language!

Most of us prefer either what we grew up hearing, or what sounds most euphonious to our ears.

I have always read a lot of British mystery, and it is perhaps for that reason that I often prefer verb formats that differ from the American. But (and in this way, I adhere to the “rules” of the English language, which seem to be that there really are no rules at all, since every rule has an exception), I’m not at all consistent in my preferences.

For instance, I dislike the British verb “leant” used in place of “leaned”, yet prefer “knelt” to “kneeled”. I much prefer the American “dove” to the British “dived”, and “scarfed” to “scoffed”—what, after all, does sneering and jeering have to do with gobbling up one’s food? And yet when it comes to “dreamed” vs. “dreamt”, I’m easy with each of them, using them interchangeably.

Perhaps it is the archaic flavor of the original British English which sets my preferences. I will always prefer the ages-old “wrought” to “wreaked”, while it’s probably best that no one question me on “shone” as opposed to “shined”!

I sometimes even extend my eccentric preferences to spelling. The spell-checker constantly reminds me that “theatre” is not American; I prefer “succour” to “succor”—and the French pronunciation to either, which in English sounds so unfortunately like “Sucker!”.

And that, perhaps, is the reason for my wacky taste in verbs: sound. One verb form simply sounds more euphonious or melodic to my ears than another. As I pointed out in “Mispronounced, Revisited” (October 19, 2018), there are words that I have mispronounced so long that the correct pronunciation sounds uncomfortable and wrong. The sound of a word, even as much as its form and spelling, is incredibly important to me.

Perhaps that is why I totally reject having the word “cisgender” applied to me. It is not that I rebuff the concept that I inhabit a body the gender of which, assigned to me at birth, I totally accept and practice; it is that cisgender is such an unattractive, ugly, uneuphonious word, reminding me of bullies in my childhood who called people sissies. I refuse to be called cisgender because I so dislike the sound of such an atrocious noun. Besides, it seems to me that if others can demand concessions to their gender identity, even going so far as to use the multiple pronoun “they” in place of the singular “he” or “she” — well, if others can demand such concessions to their preferences, then I have the right, also, to insist that I be called by my preferred descriptor. I am, therefore, either “birthgender”, or simply and straightforwardly female, just woman, just “she”, and not cisgender, thank you very much. You be whatever you want to be, and I will, also.

But then, not just the English language, but all languages, it seems, are having a hard time coping with and adjusting to the changes in social consciousness and recognition of gender fluidity. No doubt this mess will have shaken down in a generation or so, by which time I shall not be here to worry about it, in any case (she says with obvious relief).

Returning to the question of preferred verb forms, though, I have often found it hilarious when either British or American authors try their hand a writing a book or story set in one another’s countries. While familiar with the most egregious differences (i.e., lift vs. elevator; flat vs. apartment; chips vs. fries), each group invariably misses out on the more minor deviations, despite their best efforts. As I pointed out in a review of one novel, an American does not go on holiday, but on a vacation; nor do we go to hospital, but to the hospital. We eat cartons, not pots, of yogurt, not yoghurt, and are much more likely to cover our beds with a comforter than a duvet—although we might enclose that comforter in a duvet cover! We tend to eat candy, not sweets; desserts, not pudding, and we sprinkle that dessert with powdered or confectioner’s sugar, not icing sugar. It is these tiny differences that trip up an out-of-country writer every time, and make me wonder why they didn’t just track down an American colleague to scan their work and correct the more noticeable oddities. Nor does the shadow fall only on one side! While reading a novel set in Australia but written by an American writer, I noticed a few peculiarities myself, later collapsing in mirth at the snarky corrections helpfully provided by Australian reviewers of the book.

It’s no wonder that a non-native speaker of any language, no matter how fluent, is rarely able to converse in their new tongue with a comprehensive grasp of the nuances and subtleties understood by those who have spoken the language since birth–not when even those who learned the words in childhood sometimes find the whole darned process convoluted and ridiculous!

You can find the previous blog on the peculiarities of the English language, “Mispronounced, Revisited”, by scrolling below to the Archives. It was published October 19, 2018.