The Words that Failed:
A chronology of early nonbinary pronouns
Common gender pronouns are words coined to fill a gap in English: the lack of third person singular pronouns to refer to either males or females, or to both males and females, and more recently, to refer to transgender or gender nonconforming persons as well. These new words were also called gender-neutral, doubtful, or epicene, pronouns, and sometimes they’re referred to today as nonbinary pronouns. These pronouns fill a need, but none has been widely adopted, hence they are the words that failed. What has succeeded is singular they, which arose naturally in English hundreds of years ago, and is used both by speakers and writers concerned that their pronouns be inclusive, and also by many who don’t give the matter much thought at all.
In the 1850s, English speakers began inventing common gender pronouns to use when the gender of the antecedent—the person referred to by the pronoun—is unknown or irrelevant, as in sentence (1)  :
(1) Everyone loves ____’s mother.
There is no way to fill in the blank in sentence (1) that pleases everyone. Here are some of the options:
(2) Everyone loves his mother.
The generic masculine of (2) derives its authority from the doctrine of the “worthiness of the genders” articulated in grammars of Latin. For example, William Lily states, “the Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter” (A Short introduction of grammar, 1567, rpt 1765, p. 41; Lily actually lists seven Latin genders, including two types of common gender, along with the doubtful and the epicene).
This idea of gender worthiness was adapted to English grammars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but by the nineteenth century, many grammarians had come to recognize that English gender was different from Latin. There were far too many instances where generic he was not inclusive, where he could never stand for she. In standard English grammars, pronouns are supposed to agree with their referents in number and gender. But some grammarians began to argue that although he in sentence (2) is singular, it’s also clearly masculine, and so it cannot agree in gender with everyone, which is of the common gender. That makes (2) ungrammatical.
(3) Everyone loves their mother.
Since everyone is technically singular, though it implies more than one person, the singular they of sentence (3) fails the number-agreement part of the pronoun agreement rule. Interestingly, although many writers find (3) ungrammatical, a number of nineteenth-century commentators acknowledge that singular they is common in speech and has a long, respectable history in writing, and some even prefer it to invented pronouns or to option (4), the coordinate his or her. Singular they has always been available for filling in the blank of sentence (1), and there are signs that it’s an increasingly frequent choice, that it may even be the default for many English speakers.
(4) Everyone loves his or her mother.
Commentators typically reject the gender-inclusive his or her as a cumbersome and wordy circumlocution.
(5) Everyone loves her mother.
The generic feminine, sometimes found in twentieth-century feminist writing as an antidote to the generic masculine, seems too political for the average speaker or writer.
(6) Everyone loves one’s mother.
One has never been a popular pronoun in American English. Even British English speakers avoid constructions like (6).
(7) Everyone loves its mother.
It is not typically used to refer to people (although rare in today’s usage, it was formerly a common option to refer to infants).
Rejecting options (2) – (7), word coiners went to work to find an alternative. The earliest invented set of common gender pronouns that I’ve found a reference to is ne, nis, nim, along with the blend of masculine and feminine, hiser. But so far I haven’t been able to locate the texts where they first occur. A newspaper article in 1884, responding to the recent coining of thon by C. C. Converse, mentions that these forms were created “thirty years ago, or more,” hence the tentative date of 1850. Commentaries in 1792 and 1794 note the lack of a common gender pronoun, as do texts from 1808 and 1839. The 1792 essay reports on ou, a pronoun in “provincial” use, but none of these writers actually coins a new pronoun.
The early word coiners were typically concerned with grammatical correctness—avoiding generic he and singular they. They weren’t explicitly concerned with gender inclusivity or fighting heteronormativity. But as women’s rights and suffrage became prominent issues in the later nineteenth century, common gender pronouns were discussed by feminists and antifeminists alike. A Maryland Supreme Court decision in 1886 found that he in a state statute covering admission to the bar referred only to males, and so women could not practice law. In 1916, experts weighed in on the meaning of he in Article 1, sec. 2, of the Constitution, which declared “No Person shall be a Representative . . . who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen” (emphasis added). Originalists argued that the pronoun he barred women from serving in Congress; Constitutional liberals countered that he must be construed as generic and should not prevent Jeanette Rankin, of Montana, to be seated as the first woman elected to the House of Representatives.
Arguments about appropriate pronouns for transgender and gender nonconforming persons appear in recent years, provoking renewed discussions about invented nonbinary pronouns and the appropriateness of singular they. I have included in this list early comments for and against singular they, as they often appear in connection with discussions of common gender pronouns. It is my hope that this history of the early period of pronoun reform will be useful in today’s discussions of issues involving language and gender.
This list is intended as a reference work in progress, so I will keep commentary to a minimum, provide citations and links to primary materials when I can. It is likely that earlier discussions of common gender pronoun issues, and comments about singular they, will turn up. I encourage readers to help me supplement and correct what has already become a historical record that is much denser than I had anticipated.
ou, indeterminate pronoun The Scottish economist and philosopher James Anderson (“Grammatical disquisitions,” The Bee 11:120-30; 193-204; 240-50) argues for the usefulness of an “indeterminate pronoun” like the pronoun ou, recently reported in provincial use.
In fact Anderson went overboard, suggesting that English would benefit from thirteen genders, including two indefinite, or common gender, pronouns. It is perhaps fortunate that he confined most of his writing to economics and philosophy and didn’t actually coin any new pronouns.
singular they The Medley or New Bedford (MA) Marine Journal 24 March, 1794, p. 2. In a string of “battle of the sexes” articles appearing over several weeks in the Medley, the writers provide a critique, explanation, and defense of singular they, along with another early call for the coining of a common gender pronoun.
An essay published on March 17, by a contributor using the pen name “Alonzo,” argues that an essay, written two weeks earlier by “the Belle Assembly,” contains a grammatical error: the plural them used to refer to the singular one. Here is the example of singular they that Alonzo objects to:
How ungenerous it is to pitch upon some one of our acquaintance, tell private stories of them, and then industriously report them to be the author! (The Medley, 3 March, 1794, p. 2.; emphasis added).
This mismatch of singular and plural, along with other complaints about the content of the original essay, causes to Alonzo ask, “whether these Bookworms have, by their criticisms, done any honor to themselves, or the female sex in general” (The Medley, 17 March, 1794, p. 2).
In the next issue of the Medley, “the Belle Assembly,” who use the pen names Charlotte Lisper, Lavina Prattle, and Perthenia Ttrippett, reply, offering in their defense their reason for using singular they—“we wished to conceal the gender”—along with a request that Alonzo “coin us a substitute” if he’s not happy with their grammar (The Medley, 24 March, 1794, p. 2).
Alonzo did not rise to what may have been the first-ever common gender pronoun challenge, and the singular they / common gender pronoun discussion faded into the background for almost half a century.
it, which In his notebooks, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wonders “whether we may not, nay ought not, to use a neutral pronoun relative . . . to the word ‘Person,’ where it has been used in the sense of homo, mensch, or noun of the common gender, in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express sex indifferently?” Coleridge doesn’t coin a common gender pronoun, but suggests the use of it and which, “instead of, he, she, him, her, who, whom” (Anima Poetae, ed Ernest Hartley Coleridge [London: Heinemann, 1897], p. 190.)
“New words.” A writer in the Mercury And Weekly Journal of Commerce (New York, New York), 31 Jan., 1839, p. 4, offers another call for a new, nonbinary pronoun, alerting readers to “the want of a really personal pronoun in the third person singular, without gender. . . . We say, ‘If any lady or gentleman shall buy this article _____ shall have it for five dollars.’ The blank may be filled with he, she, it, or they; or in any other manner; and yet the form of the expression will be too vulgar to be uttered.”
Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps out of reluctance to use singular they, but surely with no sense of irony, the writer employs generic he in addressing potential word-coiners: “If anybody will get us well out of the difficulty . . . he will be entitled to the thanks of all persons who love to talk” (emphasis added).
generic 'he' Two leading American abolitionists disputed whether he meant she as well. Lysander Spooner argued that a woman couldn’t be president because the Constitution always refers to the president as “he" (The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845: 117).
But Wendell Phillips disagreed: “in grammars, as well as law, the rule used to be, that the masculine pronoun . . . included the race. . . . The Constitution itself, in the 5th Amendment, has, ‘no person shall be compelled to be witness against himself . . .’ But, alas! according to Mr. Spooner, none of these shields cover the defenceless heads of the women!” (The Liberator, 29 August, 1845, p. 139).
generic he Although eighteenth-century grammar books traditionally accepted the generic masculine as the logical expression of the worthiness of the genders, it took an act of Parliament in the mid-nineteenth century to enshrine this dubious grammatical principal into English law. The Interpretation Act, also called Lord Brougham's Act, or, to use the unironic long title, "An act to shorten the language of bills used in Parliament," 13 Victoria ch. 21, sec. 4, provides that,
"in all acts words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females, and the singular to include the plural, and the plural the singular, unless the contrary as to gender or number is expressly provided."
Whether he legally included she when it came to voting or holding office would form a key argument in discussions for and against women's suffrage in England after the 1860s.
Similar American statutory language, "words importing the masculine gender include the feminine as well," became part of what is called the Dictionary Act, the first section of the federal code, 1 U.S.C. 1 (see entry under 1871). Interpreting the generic masculine would generate similar discussions about the grammar of suffrage in the United States.
Note that in both English and American law, although singular and plural were reciprocally inclusive, the masculine included the feminine, but the feminine did not include the masculine. English courts in this period typically ruled that masculine nouns and pronouns included women when it came to paying taxes and other "burdens," but not when it came to voting or other "privileges."
ne, nis, nim; hiser New York Commercial Advertiser, 7 August 1884, 3. In this 1884 article, the writer disapproves of thon (see below, 1884), and recalls earlier failed attempts at coining similar “bastard” words:
The earliest result which we remember was “ne, nis, nim,” and a very serious effort indeed was made to introduce this bastard word form into use. Later somebody suggested a combination of “his” and “her,” making “hiser,” and one or two newspapers used the form for a time.
common gender pronoun The Semi-Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, VT) 1 Jan., 1852, p. 3, reports that the Lowell Morning News rejects coordinate he or she as “inelegant and bungling,” reminds readers that singular they is “a direct violation of the rules of grammar,” and calls on “one of our grammar makers to ‘fish us up’” a new pronoun.
thon A number of sources date thon to 1858, but I have not found direct evidence that the word appeared this early; see 1884 for full discussion of thon, one of the best-known common-gender coinages
er The Bucks Herald (Aylesbury, England), 15 August, 1863, p. 8. Parenthetical remark in article on meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society: "the monosyllable 'er' is a pronoun of common gender in continual use in rural districts, more especially in the West of England."
generic he The Reform Act of 1867 (30&31 Victoria, ch. 102, sec. 3) gave every "man" in England the vote. The previous law enfranchised a class of "male persons" who owned property. Suffragists argued that the Reform Act, read in light of the 1850 Act of Interpretation, meant that man should include women, and that this shift from "male person" to "man" extended the vote to women. However, mosts courts rejected this interpretation.
(Even so, English women were often allowed to vote in local elections, but they were generally denied the right to vote for members of Parliament.)
generic he A US law taxing alcohol and tobacco defines person, state, and county, and also specifies, “words of the masculine gender, as applied to persons . . . mean and include the feminine gender.” This particular act extends to women the equal right (the obligation, really) to pay the taxes in question. In 1871 (see below), the scope of the definition was extended to cover all federal statutes.
[An Act imposing Taxes on distilled Spirits and Tobacco, and for other Purposes. Statutes at Large, Ch. CLXXXVI § 104. 40th Congress July 20, 1868]
en Cited by Richard Grant White. The Galaxy,Aug., 1868): 241-44. From the French en, suggested by a correspondent, and rejected by White as unnecessary. Excerpt from the suggestion:
han, hans, han, hanself Boston Recorder, 22 Oct., 1868, p. 342. A correspondent signing themselves “L” offers this coinage as short, unappropriated (that is, not performing other linguistic functions), and euphonious, as well as being both pronoun-like and distinct from the other pronouns. The writer is aware that pronouns are what we call today a closed lexical class: it is easier to incorporate “a hundred new nouns and adjectives, and fifty new verbs,” than one new pronoun.
un, uns, one “The personal pronoun,” Boston Recorder, 19 Nov., 1868, p. 374. “An expert correspondent” finds han (see above) difficult because “the aspirate is in the way. The English would never accept it; they are plagued enough already with their h’s.” Instead, they recommend un, from the French. Better still, un adds, “a missionary pastor at the West” suggests expanding the use of one.
generic he Chicago Tribune,4 April, 1869, p. 2. The writer notes that the Illinois consitution limits voting to "every white male citizen," but although that denies women the vote, it does not deny them the right to hold office. Since the masculine pronoun by law includes the feminine, women must therefore be eligible to hold office in Illinois: "so far as this State is concerned, the eligibility of women to all offices is rendered indisputable, because by general statute it is declared that, under the laws of Illinois, 'where any party or person is described or referred to by words importing the masculine gender, females, as well as males, shall be deemed to be included.' "
generic he; new pronoun needed Appleton's Journal, 21 August, 1869, p. 26. Citing the need for a common-gender pronoun, the writer adds, "Why should it not be the duty of the women's-rights women to supply the needed term? As the laws of the grammars stand, the use of 'he,' when 'she' is meant, is an outrage upon the dignity and an encroachment upon the rights of women. It is quite as important that they should stand equal with men in the grammars as before the law--so we hand this duty of amending the language over to Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony."
generic he On February 25, 1871, the U.S. Congress passed the Dictionary Act (41st Congress, Session III, ch. 71, sec. 2; now part of 1 U.S.C. 1.1). Similar to the English Act of Interpretation of 1850 (see above), this law defines the scope of certain words for all federal statutes, unless otherwise specified. The relevant part of the law reads, "words importing the masculine gender may be applied to females." As with the Act of Interpretation, legislating the generic masculine generated discussions in the U.S. over the scope of he when it came to voting and holding office.
le Detroit Free Press, 10 Nov., 1871, p. 2. Coined by “a Philadelphia philologist . . . wishing to steer clear of all sexual partiality.” The writer provides this example: “Let our Philadelphian keep on, le is no doubt in the right, linguistically.”
se, sis, sim Capt. John W. Dozier. “A New Pronoun.” Atlanta Constitution, 20 Sept., 1884, p. 4. Writing in 1884, Dozier, head of the West Georgia Agricultural and Mechanical College (Hamilton, GA), claims to have coined this new paradigm, based on the Latin se, about ten years earlier, though he did not offer it to the public until 1884. See also, “The pronoun se,” Atlanta Constitution, 12 Mar., 1888, p. 4.
Shall we have a new pronoun Findlay (OH) Jeffersonian, 14 May, 1875, p. 1. The writer calls out the Atlantic for a recent use of singular they, explaining, “even careful writers make the mistake, while in the ordinary utterances of the day it is as common as air.” Of the grammatically-correct generic masculine, the writer says, “the instincts of justice are stronger than those of grammar, and hence the average man would rather commit a solecism than ungallantly squelch the woman in his jaunty fashion.” Despite the light, condescending tone, this is another early allusion in the pronoun discussion to a feminist concern.
After this nod to chivalry, the writer adds, “every man of dispassionate judgment must see that if nearly all the writers in the country, learned and unlearned, are continually betrayed into a definite error of grammar, and an error which can be avoided in many instances only by either clumsy circumlocution or a half statement, there does exist a radical defect in the language to cause it.” And the writer concludes that objecting to new words is like the objections to “gas, railways and steamboats . . . [that] bar the way to every improvement in our civilization.”
Wanted—a pronoun Somerset (PA) Herald, 29 Dec., 1875, p. 1. The writer disagrees with Richard Grant White (see above, 1868), arguing instead that we do indeed need a new pronoun. Another early connection between gender-neutral language and women’s rights: “We think the next Woman’s Rights convention would and should object to [White’s preference for the generic masculine he,along with White's example]: ‘If a man wishes to sleep, he must not eat cheese for supper.’”
The writer argues that a new pronoun would be the easiest solution for “the masses [who] are not masters of language.” And as if to demonstrate this point, the writer concludes by treating the plural literati as a singular: “One thing is certain, there will be cause for complaint until our literati gives us better English or a new pronoun.”
um Nebraska Advertiser, 4 Oct., 1877, p. 1. “Years ago it appears that some linguistic genius suggested that ‘um’ be used for the common gender. . . . If any person is dissatisfied with the language as it now stands we should recommend um to adopt it.”
ita The Summit County Beacon (Akron, OH), 5 Dec., 1877, p. 3, cites a suggestion by "A Reader" in the West Salem Monitor for ita, composed of it + a, “as a common gender termination,” adding, “Let every teacher and editor give ita opinion of the proposed innovation.”
“We want a new pronoun” Unsigned “Contributors’ Club” column, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1878, pp. 260-62, calls the need for a new pronoun “desperate, urgent, imperative.” The writer calls on “the eminent linguists” to coin one, adding, “I do not believe there is a writer in the country that is not hampered every time he—no, she—There! I’ve run against the old snag.”
e, es, em "The Missing Word,” Memphis (TN) Daily Appeal. 10 Nov., 1878, p 2; reprint of an article that first appeared in the Moline (IL) Dispatch, and referencing an earlier discussion of pronouns in the Peoria (IL) Daily Tribune. “Nothing is needed but use to make ‘E’ just as good a pronoun for the third person as ‘I’ is for the first.”
singular they; his or her The well-known Scottish philosopher and linguist Alexander Bain wrote one of the few nineteenth-century grammars to approve of singular they: “When both Genders are implied, it is allowable to use the Plural . . . . Grammarians frequently call this construction an error: not reflecting that it is equally an error to apply ‘his’ to feminine subjects. The best writers furnish examples of the use of the plural as a mode of getting out of the difficulty.” Bain says that the conjoined his or her preserves strict grammar, but he warns, “this construction is felt to be too cumbrous to be kept up."A higher English grammar (New York: Holt, 1879, p. 310).
hesh, hiser, himer; e, es, em; singular they Alice L Heath, "a progressive teacher," calls for a new pronoun in a signed article in the Holt County (MO) Sentinel, 31 Jan., 1879 p. 3. Despite objections, the new pronoun, like Banquo’s ghost, won’t go away. Heath laments that the established grammarians prevent her from declaring “The Declaration of Independence to my language,” requiring her to use “awkward verbal circuits” like his or her, which restrict her freedom. She encourages speakers of English to “become inventors not only of labor saving machines inventors of labor-saving words.” But she calls particularly on “our philologists [to] combine and meet the demand; otherwise those not so well qualified will do the work.” Heath thinks a pronoun like e is "less harsh” than hesh, adding, “We wouldn’t conscientiously use them as we know it would be incorrect.” Heath argues that “the need is so imperative, the demand that no longer the pronoun he shall carry double—shall represent either he or she—so urgent.” And yet she, too, uses generic masculines: “It becomes us to . . . welcome the time when an intelligent man with something valuable to say will not have to halt in the middle of a sentence feeling stranded, go back and begin again or else flounder ungrammatically through to the bitter end, and all because our language is deficient in that one direction.”
singular they “Contributors’ Club.” Atlantic Monthly 43 (Feb., 1879): 256. The writer argues that if the pronoun you could serve as both singular and plural, “then why not they?” Approving singular they would normalize what people already do: “It would be easy to adopt this idiom, for we are continually struggling against its use, and how delightful it would be for once to make wrong right!”
[A note on plural you: Originally plural, you began to serve as a singular as well in the seventeenth century, replacing and eventually ousting the th- forms, thou, thee, thy, thine, as well as ye. Then, as happens now with singular they, some commentators objected that singular you was ungrammatical. In 1660, George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), wrote an entire book devoted to the “error” of singular you. In A battle-door [i.e., a textbook] for teachers and professors to learn singular & plural, Fox argued, “Do not they speak false English . . . that doth not speak thou to one, and what ever he be, Father, Mother, King, or Judge, is he not a Novice, and Unmannerly, and an Ideot, and a Fool, that speaks Your to one, which is not to be spoken to a singular, but to many?” Fox lost that battle to the “unmannerly” English of the “idiots” and “fools,” though many 18th and 19th-century English grammars--the works of Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray, among them--continued to regard thou as the second-person singular, and you as the plural, even though speakers and writers had long abandoned the form. It's likely that students were required to write thou on grammar tests, even though they and their teachers used you for everything else.]
um “Contributors’ Club.” The Atlantic Monthly 43, no. 257 (Mar., 1879): 397. Unsigned article says, “It is nothing more nor less than the creation, or discovery, of a new sex, or a no sex, answering to the new pronoun ‘um’ that is proposed when you want to say ‘he’ or ‘she’ but can’t.”
generic he New York Times, 25 February, 1879, p. 4. Discusses a new Texas law stipulating that, in the words of the writer, "all gender shall be abolished. . . . the masculine gender shall include the feminine and neuter." Because of this, "suffrage becomes promiscuous in Texas, and all the avenues of political preferment are open to all the sexes, masculine, feminine, and neuter." [To be fair, the sarcastic writer, who is racist and nativist as well as sexist, attacks other aspects of language and law in Texas as well.]
generic he Detroit Free Press, 13 May, 1881, p. 4. Reports on the denial of a petition by Mrs. Belva Lockwood, "the Washington lawyeress," to be admitted to the Maryland bar. The account continues, "To get rid of the masculine provisions of the article she cited another article of the code, providing that the masculine shall be held to include all genders except where such constructions would be absurd and unreasonable." In response, the Maryland court ruled "that it would be 'absurd and unreasonable' in the exact words of the code, to apply the pronouns 'he' and 'him' to a woman." Lockwood was the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar, in 1879, and the first to argue a case before the high Court. She ran for president in 1884 on the ticket of the National Equal Rights party, appearing on the ballot in nine states. She said, of her campaign, “I cannot vote, but I can be voted for.”
generic he The North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough, England), 27 September, 1883, p. 2. Writer reports on proposal at Bombay University to have he include women, but finds this "is a somewhat inglorious way of granting the boon of equality to the fair sex. What they ask for is to be placed on an equal footing with men, but to make the pronoun 'he' include the femin[in]e gender is simply swamping their personality in that of the sterner sex."
Wanted—A new pronoun. William D. Armes calls for a new pronoun “that shall express personality without denoting gender.” Armes would prefer such a word to singular they: “Ordinarily one would say, ‘Every one is the architect of their own fortune’—incorrect but expressive.” The Literary World. 14 June, 1884, p. 199.
thon, thons Charles Crozat Converse. Signed contribution, dated 23 July, Erie PA. The Critic, 2 Aug., 1884, p. 55. Converse, a lawyer and well-known hymn writer from Erie, says he coined thon after several years of failed coinages. Converse does not say what these earlier coinages were, or when he fixed on thon to be his chosen pronoun. The editor of the short-lived monthly English: for all the lovers of the English language, says that Converse coined thon as early as 1858 (January, 1920, p. 262), and that date was picked up by H. L. Mencken in The American Language (2e. 1926, p. 192n.) and later by others, but so far I have not been able to find any of the early, unsuccessful coinages that Converse experimented with, or any occurrences of thon before his 1884 essay in The Critic.
Converse’s proposal sparked much discussion in the literary and journalistic press. Some voiced support, others were skeptical about the need for a new pronoun, or of the success of Converse’s pronoun. Williams (below) preferred a different option. The Boston Globe, in an editorial article, felt that “The majority of people will continue to say they” (7 Aug., 1884, p. 2). That statement, in turn, prompted readers to object that singular they was ungrammatical (for example, J. E. Pratt’s letter to The Critic, 16 Aug., 1884, p. 80, which appears below, after Williams’ suggestion). Thon was included in multiple editions of Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary and in Webster’s Second New International Dictionary (1934), though it was silently dropped from Webster’s Third. Here is the entry from Webster’s Second. Note the pronunciation of thon, dictated by Converse, is the voiced th- of that, the word it derives from, and not the voiceless th- of thing.
one; singular they A writer in the New York Commercial Advertiser, 7 August 1884, 3, who dislikes thon (see above, ca. 1850), recommends the generic masculine, the existing pronoun one, or singular they, which is not an error, at least in spoken English: “Many persons who are by no means ignorant accept, in conversation at least, the plan of using the plural common gender pronouns, ‘they, their, theirs,’ etc., indifferently as singular or plural. And in this they are not without authority of good usage.
hi, hes, hem Francis H. Williams. The Critic, 16 Aug., 1884, pp. 79-80. Williams suggests this alternative to thon, but the editor points out that hi is too easily confused with he.
singular they J. E. Pratt, The Critic, 16 Aug., 1884, p. 80, rejects thon as well as singular they, and criticizes the Boston Globe for approving a grammatical error “in using the word they it either outrages a long established custom in such cases, or supposes a majority of persons to be equally ignorant; or it is guilty on both counts."
le, lis, lim (from the French); unus; talis Edgar Alfred Stevens. The Current, 30 Aug., 1884, p. 127. Stevens recognizes the need for a common gender pronoun and suggests that the pronoun it may have been created for that purpose, though it has proved unsuccessful. Stevens rejects thon (mentioned in The Current, 9 Aug., 1884, p. 94), faulting it for obscuring its etymology and its lack of case endings. He prefers instead to derive a new pronoun from the French le and pattern it after the masculine he, his, him. Stevens further suggests that word coiners submit their creations and let writers adopt the one they like best.
hiser, himer (hyser, hymer) Charles P. Sherman. The Literary World, 6 Sept., 1884, p. 294. Sherman says, “That some pronoun is wanted is, I think, evident,” and he coins a pronoun “composed of parts of ‘his’ and ‘her.’” As for the pronoun one, Sherman questions the grammaticality of a sentence like “Every man or woman is the architect of one’s own fortune,” adding, “It would hardly run smoothly in usage."
hersh, herm “Wanted, a word,” Daily Record Union, Sacramento, CA, 10 Sept., 1884, p. 1. The writer says that some years ago, Horace Greeley “offered a reward for a new word . . . of common, or no, or both genders.” [Greeley, well-known founder and editor of the New York Tribune, died in 1872; a search of the Tribune has turned up no reference to Greeley’s call for a pronoun, and no earlier record of hersh.]
Hersh is described as “a compound of his or her,” and herm derives from him or her. The writer also approves of thon and le instead of his or her: “speaking of both sexes disjunctively is destructive of all that is poetic in a sentence.” The writer adds, “Legislatures get over the difficulty by writing the laws in the masculine gender and then, by a sweeping statute, declaring that wherever in the law the masculine pronoun is used it shall be deemed to include the feminine.” They find that such a workaround is inappropriate for non-legal English.
hisern Mentioned, without elaboration, in an unsigned letter to the Atlanta Constitution, 13 Sept., 1884, p. 4. The writer prefers the generic masculine to thon or other invented pronouns.
ip, ips Emma Carleton. The Current, 20 Sept., 1884, p. 186. Responding to the earlier call in The Current for a new common gender pronoun, Carleton laments that “no man [has] risen to supply the missing word."
hae, haes/hais, haim Suggester. Atlanta Constitution, 24 Sept., 1884, p. 4. Clearly pronouns are in the air, for “Suggester” refers to “the new personal pronoun,” assuming readers will be familiar with the isssue.
singular they C. K. Maddox, writing in the Atlanta Constitution, 26 Sept., 1884, p. 4, rejects Dozier’s se, sis, sim (reported Sept. 20, but coined a decade earlier, see above, ca. 1874) and argues strongly for singular they, which is in common use, although “our grammarians and dictionary makers are very conservative and often positively stupid” for rejecting it.
tha, thare, them (thon); singular they “The missing pronoun,” The Current, 17 Jan., 1885, pp. 43-44. Fred Newton Scott, who in a few years would become a well-known linguist at the Univ. of Michigan, as well as president of the National Council of Teachers of English and the Modern Language Association, had just graduated from Michigan in 1884. In this essay, Scott favors singular they, but recommends respelling according to his new paradigm, with thon as a possible replacement for them. Scott asserts that singular they is used by millions in speech, and by large numbers of careful and well-educated writers.
Scott reminds readers that his proposal is “not in the slightest degree dictatorial. It is perhaps the best recommendation the new word brings with it, that no one person can claim its invention."
singular they “The new pronoun.” Atlanta Constitution. 25 Feb., 1885, p. 4. English is not Latin, and so the writer rejects invented pronouns and coordinate his or her in favor of the natural, colloquial style of singular they.
thar Atlanta Constitution. 21 Mar., 1885, p. 4. A partly humorous response to a critique of the Constitution discussion of pronouns by the Chicago Times. Not a serious pronoun proposal, but a supposed Southern pronunciation of their, i.e., a form of singular they.
thon Signing as Peck’s Sun, the writer of “Tinkering the English language,” in the Springfield, OH, Globe-Republic, 25 Mar., 1885 p. 2, finds thon unnecessary and warns that adopting it will drastically increase the cost of already overpriced schoolbooks: first students will have to buy new grammars, then new spelling books, geographies, even arithmetic books.
“If the inventor of ‘thon’ wants to place a pronoun where it will do the most good, let him introduce it in France, where they have no neuter gender, everything being either ‘he’ or ‘she.’ The writer concludes, "Shoot the thon."
zyhe, zyhe’s, zyhem “The lacking word,” The Current, 28 Mar., 1885, p. 199, over an undecipherable signature, the writer summarizes previous coinages and offers zyhe, consisting of Anglo-Saxon he combined with zy, "the Danish for she . . . . Pronounce zah-e, zah-e’s (s having the sound z), zah-e-m."
singular they; we Nashville Daily American 28 February, 1886, p. 2. The writer says, "There was a strong disposition a few years ago to use the word 'they' in place of the painfully grammatical expression 'he or she.' The grammarians forbade it, as not consistent with the rules of grammar. If these grammarians had let us alone,'they' would have been selected by the people as the pronoun of common gender, third person, singular or plural number, and a great want of the language would have been supplied. The writer also makes a case for we as an impersonal pronoun joining second and third person.
one "Wanted, a pronoun," Blackwood's Magazine, rpt. in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, England), 6 March 06, 1886, p. 4. The writer says that using two pronouns, he or she, to represent one noun, is "cumbrous and in a degree destructive of the convenience to serve which pronouns have been invented," and that singular they is an error hightlighting the absence of a pronoun. Wants to extend use of one to fill the gap.
Another article, "The new pronoun suggested,” Nashville (TN) Daily American, 30 May, 1886, p. 10, reprints an article from the Toronto Educational Weekly which, in turn, quotes a Scot writing in Blackwood’s (above) who argues in favor of one as the common gender pronoun, adding, “Whatever word may be adopted will sound strange when first used in that sense, but the ear would not be long in becoming reconciled to it."
his-her, him-her “A new pronoun suggested,” Baltimore Sun, 13 Dec., 1886, p. 6. Cites a reference by a correspondent writing in the New York Evening Post to a coinage of “a Maryland lady sojourning in New Haven” for a “hermaphroditic pronoun to represent both sexes . . . a word which has the advantage of being free from fantastic form or unfamiliar sound.” According to the proposer, once the form becomes familiar, the hyphen can be dropped.
ir, iro, im (sg.); tha, thar, them (pl.) Elias Molee, Plea for an American Language (Chicago: John Anderson, 1888), 200-01. Molee creates an “Amerikan Grammar” by restoring the Germanic roots of English; as part of his nativist project he adds common gender singular pronouns (“c.g.” in the diagram below stands for ‘common gender’) to avoid having to repeat he and she, his or her.
ze, zis, zim Josiah W. Leeds, “The unsupplied common gender pronoun,” writes to the Philadelphia Ledger (rpt. in the Macon (GA) Telegraph, 30 Mar., 1888, p. 4, that Joshua Hoopes, a botanist and Latin scholar from West Chester, PA, had coined this paradigm a few years earlier, which Leeds likens to the se, sis, sim paradigm coined by Dozier (see 1874, above). Leeds argues that since English is becoming global, and other languages already have common gender pronouns, “there is no reason why we should not possess the same convenience."
de, der, dem Atlanta Constitution, 7 Apr., 1888, p. 6. An anonymous writer suggests this paradigm from African American English. The proposal is racist and stereotypical, but expresses an attitude common in 19th-century periodicals.
common gender he As the issue of women’s suffrage gained more attention, supporters and opponents of women’s rights focused on the scope of the pronoun he. If the pronoun was construed as generic, and he could refer as well to she, then statutes that used the pronoun he to refer to voters or members of certain professions, like the law, or to those eligible to hold certain offices, could not be used to bar women. But if he meant ‘only men,’ then laws with he meant ‘no women.’ Courts and public opinion were divided on the issue.
In 1888, Equal Rights Party member Anna Johnson told John J. O’Brien, chief of New York City’s Election Bureau that generic he in New York’s voting law gave women the vote: ““[T]he English language is destitute of a singular personal pronoun, third person, of common gender; but usage sanctions the employment of ‘he,’ ‘him’ and ‘his’ as of common gender. Therefore under ‘he’ women can certainly register” (New-York Tribune, 26 Oct., 1888, p. 4).
Other feminists disagreed about the generic masculine. See, for example, the entry for 1902.
ons (from one) C. R. B. Writer 3 (1889): 231 Apparently C. R. B. had not been following the discussion of common gender pronouns in the press. The comment by the editor, William H. Hills, proved correct: “People will readily agree that such a word would be a useful addition to the language, but they will not agree upon a word."
e (from he), es, em (from them) James Rogers of Crestview, Florida. Writer 4 (1890): 12-13. Rogers objects to thon because “every one has to be told how to pronounce it” and “it is more than twice as long as e."
"Wanted, a word" Evening Standard (Dundee, Scotland). 14 April, 1890, p. 2. Correspondent asks for a philologist or grammarian to come up with an alternative to 'he or she' or singular they.
hi, hes, hem “The Needed common pronoun,” Weekly Irish Times, 26 July, 1890, p. 3. “Of course the eye and ear will experience a shock at first, but this will be the case with any word which can be coined."
hor, hors, horself; zie “To indicate the common gender.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 Sept., 1890, p. 7. A writer from Pittsfield, MA, submits a proposal for hor, pronounced “like the first syllable of the word horror.” The editor adds zie to round out the paradigm.
hizer; singular they Forrest Morgan. Writer 5: 260-62. The writer argues that singular they is grammatically correct because good writers use it, and he adds that your for thine is perfectly acceptable. For Morgan, singular they is better than “such atrocious inventions as ‘thon’ or ‘hizer.'"
ith, iths George Winslow Pierce. The Life-Romance of an Algebraist (Boston: J.G. Cupples, 1891; coined in 1890), 35.
zie Chicago Daily Tribune,15 January, 1891, p. 4. An editorial complains that schools are teaching children to capitalize every word: "The great majority of these writers need to be told when not to capitalize, and it would seem superfluous to increas the amount of this unlearning to be done by the pupil if 'Zie' would write correctly." Presumably the pronoun Zie mocks German pronouns and capitalization practices, as German in the schools was a touchy issue at the time.
zie; ha, har Chicago Daily Tribune 23 January, 1891, p. 5. "An Old Educator" responds to the Tribune, taking the pronoun seriously: "I do not like your invention of 'Zie' for the common gender. It is the same in sound and almost the same in form as the German word for they. It omits the one letter which is found in all our pronouns of this class--viz.: the letter h." The writer prefers ha and har, saying, "Thus we should present the uniformity of this class of words and avoid perplexing the student by a very wide departure in both sound and form."
A new pronoun Report in
the Denver Post
hoo Weekly Standard and Express (Blackburn, England), 10 August, 1895, p. 8. Brief discussion of Lancashire dialect pronoun; although usually thought to be feminine, the writer asserts that it is "a pronoun of indifferent personality," used for both masculine and feminine, but not neuter.
thon, thonself Editor, San Francisco Call,
But the editor of the Call writes that, although a new pronoun may be needed, thon is “strange” and “not euphonious.”
thon A correction from Eugene O. Lewis, in the Hillsboro, OH, News-Herald, 20 June, 1895, p. 1, notes that thon has been around for a decade without achieving much success, despite its warm reception by Francis A. March and Charles Eliot Norton, well-known philologists: “Professor March said, ‘What Mr. Converse says of the want of such a pronoun is all good, and he forms his thon very simply. I do not know that any other vocable would have so good a chance for this vacancy.’” But Lewis adds, “Our common language is the outcome of our daily needs, rather than the result of a philologist’s labors in his study,"
en, ens, enself, generic woman “Our editor’s bi-weekly letter,” Lucifer The Light-Bearer (Topeka, Kansas), 15 Nov., 1895, p. 2. A radical feminist essay which lists the lack of a common gender pronoun as one of the “discriminations as to words” to which “women writers, teachers, lecturers acquiesce,” and which make women “a lower class, a primary or a minor class, and therefore, rightfully, a subject class."
The author says, “They have rights who dare to take them,” and calls on women to be aware of the defects of vocabulary that are “the causes that enslave themselves and their sisters.” She urges that woman be the generic term instead of man, and calls for the adoption of a common gender pronoun.
common gender pronoun "Editorial Suggestions," Boston Daily Advertiser,7 Dec., 1895, p. 4. This anti-feminist writer can't resist stereotyping women as big spenders in an example that he quotes, showing "the difficulty so often experienced for want of a personal pronoun in the singular number of the common gender: The American is noted for his wasteful propensities. We say his but we mean hers in this connection." He goes on, "We may use the masculine pronoun . . . on the ground that 'the men embrace the women,' " adding snarkily, that if women spent less, "the men would brace the women oftener than they do." How a common gender pronoun would help this writer's problem is not entirely clear.
heesh, hizzer, himmer (ca. 1865); singular they A writer in the Louisville (KY) Courier Journal, 10 May, 1900, p. 4, says that heesh, hizzer, and himmer were coined thirty or forty years earlier, possibly a reference to the earlier hiser mentioned above, and discusses singular they, still regarded as ungrammatical but common in speech and even found in careful writing, “though generally by oversight.” Grammarians have not been able to halt its use, and “usage may ultimately force a recognition of the plural pronouns as singular pronouns also when the common gender is used.” The writer concludes, “At all events, an epicene pronoun will have to be developed in some way; one made to order is not likely to be accepted. That is not the law of language, except, possibly, in the case of the names of new inventions, such as the telegraph, telephone, and the like."
masculine-only he The writer of “Not wanted in Maryland” The Biloxi (MS) Daily Herald, 6 Feb., 1902, p. 2, reports on a Maryland State Supreme Court decision excluding women from the bar because state law refers to lawyers as he: “Unless this can be interpreted to include the feminine gender, then the court can find no legislation upon which to base a right to admit the present applicant.” Maryland was at the time one of the few states that barred women attorneys, and in response to the decision, the state legislature rewrote the law and the first woman was admitted to the Maryland bar later that year. However, changing the language of the law didn’t necessarily change attitudes: women were not admitted to the Maryland Bar Association until the 1950s.
singular they; common gender he Bertha Moore, in “Influence of language,” in Lucifer The Light Bearer (Chicago, IL), 25 Sept., 1902, p. 290, finds that the grammatical error is not singular they, it is the common gender he, his, and him, usages she calls “prejudicial, detrimental and unjust."
Moore argues that since you can be both singular and plural, “[i[t is equally as proper to use the pronouns they, their and them, both in the singular and plural number."
generic he Chicago Daily Tribune, 21 June, 1903, p. 38. Reports that Baltimore appointed eight women as truant officers because City Solicitor ruled that "in all legislation a masculine term was held to include the feminine except where it would be absurd or unreasonable." Notes that a year before, Maryland's Supreme Court denied application of a woman to practice law because of the same statute.
new pronoun; new, common gender honorific “Philological,” in Dallas Morning News, 2 July, 1905, p. 14, calls for a new pronoun, and notes that thon has not been widely adopted. What is interesting about this call for new words to fill the gaps in English is the request to help business writers by coining a new honorific, or title, “an acceptable noun to designate a correspondent of either sex.” The earliest of these honorifics found so far, Mx, dates from 1977 and was added in December, 2015, to the OED.
composite pronoun wanted Fergus County (Montana) Democrat, 2 January, 1902, p. 8. The writer calls for a composite, or portmanteau, word, “to express both he and she, and what is sometimes more important, to express neither he nor she."
common gender he The Baltimore (MD) American, 7 Aug., 1909, p. 8, reprints an article from the Manchester Union, headed “Gender in politics,” about Sarah Platt Decker, candidate for Congress in Colorado. The writer wonders whether the use of the masculine pronoun in the Constitution would bar women from serving in Congress. Article 1 provides that “no person shall be a representative . . . who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen” (Art. I, sec. 2; emphasis added). According to the writer, “Strict adherents to the letter of the Constitution maintain that the presence of the masculine pronoun, and the absence of any other, obviously renders ineligible any person of the feminine persuasion.” The issue was raised again in 1916, when the first woman was elected to Congress, and the masculine pronoun proved not to be a problem.
generic he Baltimore Sun 11 October, 1909. Editorial supports a recent opinion of the advisor to the Board of Election not allowing women candidates for office in Maryland. Cites Art. 3, sec. 9 of the 1867 state constitution, which uses the masculine pronoun referring to members of the legislature, in context of Art. 1, sec. 6 of the code, which reads, "the masculine includes all genders, except where such construction would be absurd or unreasonable." W. Starr Gephart, the advisor, finds that women candidates for office would indeed be absurd and unreasonable, since women do not have the vote and because "it would violate the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution." Editorial also cites recent approval by the Court of Appeals of a woman as State Librarian, a constitutional office, even though the"masculine pronoun is used each time to refer to the official." The writer concludes, "It would seem to be absurd, however, to elect a person to the Legislature who does not possess the right to vote, and it can be safely assumed that the question of the eligibility of females for office did not once present itself to the minds of the members of the convention of 1867."
thon; nonbinary gender “Proposing a new gender.” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 10, 1910, p. 4. The writer says, of thon, “No so many years ago the need for the new pronoun was not pressing.” He then embarks on a diatribe about modern, nonbinary gender:
“The word ‘American,’ for example, then meant a male citizen only. An American woman was called an American woman. There were then no female wrestlers or male milliners. But today the old barriers of sex grow shadowy and faint. Women are taking the citadel of the decadent sterner sex by storm. Already the female barber, baseball player, anarchist, theologian and horse trainer are commonplace. And men grow feminine as the dear girls grow masculine. The Chicago women’s clubs demand that all schoolboys be taught plain sewing and home cooking. Men eat chocolates, patronize manicures, go to matinees. Thus ‘thon’ seems to meet a growing want . . . . Perhaps it might be well, while the subject is under discussion, to attempt the creation of an entirely new gender, for the purpose of facilitating reference to the growing caste of manly women and womanly men."
hier, hierself “Let each one choose for h-i-e-r-self.” Baltimore Sun, 12 Feb., 1910, p. 5. E. P. Jots, of New Decatur, Alabama, writes in response to the Sun’s editorial on thon with the suggestion that hier is preferable since it combines his and her.
he’er, him’er, his’er, his’er’s Ella Flagg Young. Chicago Tribune, 7 Jan., 1912, sec. 1, p. 7. Young, Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools and president of the National Education Association, says she had long felt the need for such a word and that she had just invented the paradigm on the way to a meeting with school principals.
Young used her new pronouns without warning in her speech, and when members of the audience asked about it, she explained her invention. Principals then resolved to spread the pronoun in their schools.
Although the Tribune report has Young coining what she called her "duo-personal pronouns" on the way to her January 6 meeting, she said later that the "duo pronouns" came out of an earlier discussion with Fred S. Pond, of Chicago. (Baltimore Sun, 11 February, 1912, p. 15).
Young told the Sun that language change cannot be dictated: "the language belongs to us all." In her interview she uses a generic masculine instead of a common gender pronoun: "none of us is custom or law unto himself." Young insists that her coinages are mere suggestions that will depend for their success on approval by experts and by users of the language. Lexicographer Isaac K. Funk wrote to the New York Times that, although he preferred thon, Young's pronouns, “like Wagner’s music, are better than they sound” (New York Times, 12 January, 1912, p. 12). He later added heer, hiser, and himer to his Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary.
she'er, her'er St. Louis Superintendent of Schools Ben Blewett told local reporters that he preferred the generic masculine to Young's new pronouns. Calling pronouns “generic, not genderic,” Blewett insisted, “generically we are all men," at least until the feminist revolution takes hold: "In fact when women achieve their ambition to enter all the walks of life in competition with men the feminine form of pronoun may come into general use. . . . Miss Young is represented as suggesting 'he’er.' Why not: 'She’er' and why not 'her’er' instead of 'him’er.'"? (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 January, 1912, p. 14).
Picking up on Blewett's example of she'er, an anonymous St. Louis critic argues that the female-first “cogendrous pronouns” are not pleasing to the ear because men are simply more harmonious than women: "[T]he masculine pronoun is more euphonic than the feminine, because—well, is it because the thing with which it is consociated, and for which it stands, is better attuned to the laws of harmony, and of cadence, as expressed in nature? (St. Louis Globe-Democrat; rpt., Colfax (WA) Gazette, 19 January, 1912, p. 4).
And George Harvey, the influential editor of Harper’s Weekly, suggests that Young’s common-gender pronouns signal the end times for language: "When 'man' ceases to include women we shall cease to need a language, and won’t care any more about pronouns" (Harper’s Weekly, 27 January, 1912, p. 5).
heris, herim New York Tribune, 8 January, 1912, p. 6. Editorial comment on Young's pronoun says, perhaps dismissively, "In this age of feminism, if we must have such a word wouldn't it be better to change the order and make it 'heris' [her-his] and 'herim' [her-him]? Besides, it would be more euphonious."
common gender honorific Los Angeles Times, 27 Jan., 1912, p. 13. The writer alludes to Young's coinage in discussing a problem the San Francisco Board of Supervisors encountered in trying to find an appropriate way to address a memo to the two men and two women on the city's Board of Education: "'No form has been discovered by which that body properly may be addressed. 'Dear Sirs and Madams' was withdrawn because one of the women is unmarried; 'Dear Miss, Madame, and Sirs' was proposed, but rejected. 'Ladies and Gents' received brief consideration. 'Dear Board of Education' was rejected because it sounded like the letters to Santa Claus."
heor, hisor, himor
The writer proposes this paradigm in the Charlevoix (Michigan) County Herald, 27 Apr., 1912, p.2, noting that these words will not “conflict, in sound if not in spelling, with other words already in use.” They may be hyphenated he-or, his-or, him-or.
hie, hiez, hie (phonetic spellings of he, hes, he); ov hie Language reformer Mont Follick, D. Phil. (Sorbonne), British spelling reformer, and Member of Parliament, in The Influence of English (London: Williams & Norgate, 1934), pp. 198-99. Follick prefers to reduce all third person singular pronouns to this simplified version of the masculine paradigm. He further suggests discarding the possessive altogether in favor of the prepositional phrase, ov hie, 'of he.'
common gender he A report titled, “Argue That ‘He’ in Constitution Might Bar Miss Rankin From House,” The Washington Post, 12 Nov., 1916, p. 6, cites unnamed “students of the Federal Constitution” who warn that the masculine pronoun might prevent the seating of Jeanette Rankin, of Montana, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. The relevant part of the Constitution reads, “No Person shall be a Representative . . . who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen” (Art. I, sec. 2, emphasis added; see entry for 1909, on the same issue). The Post quotes Barton Payne, a prominent Chicago judge, who dismisses this objection: “As for the ‘he’ in the Federal Constitution, I don’t believe it would be construed so as to prevent Miss Rankin from accepting the seat in Congress."
thon “His dilemma about her,” Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 Nov., 1916, p. 12, discusses the “dilemma” facing the House of Representatives when they seat Jeanette Rankin: will Rankin be recognized by the Speaker as the “lady from Montana,” the “person from Montana,” or “the member from Montana”? After comments about common gender nouns like person and member, the writer goes on to discuss thon: It is “better than a thousand words of recognized orthographical standing: but no newspaper and no college can give it good repute. It must come up from the people, like slang, not down from the highbrows."
su from the Spanish, in the Gulfport (MS) Daily Herald, 11 Feb., 1921, p. 2. The writer observes that since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, “some women . . . are insisting that the grammatical or historically approved use of man, he, his or him to refer to both man and woman, be subjected to the amendment—and this they consider fundamental, constitutional and foundational. . . . The modern woman feels that man is ‘putting something over’ by use of the words he, him, his, although they are of common gender when used with reference to a class and used as a collective noun."
thon, thone 6 April, 1922, p 1. Okolona (MS) Messenger, "A new pronoun." The writer refers to a recent failed attempt by Senator W. A. Ellis to have the state legislature adopt a common gender pronoun, and wrongly attributes thon to an Ohio school superintendent named White, ca. 1894-95, adding the form thone, a contraction of that one, and remarking on its usefulness in the context of women's suffrage: "When the word was first proposed, we saw no real need of another personal pronoun as the language was fairly well expressive without its use. Now, however, since woman's sphere is so widened that she takes part in matters which were then considered wholly within the province of the sterner sex, such a word is needed and should come into use to lessen the burden on the language."
he-she, his-her, him-her G. A. Kratzer, in the Llano Colonist (Leesville LA), 26, Aug., 1922 p. 6, comments on the lack of a common gender pronoun for referring to God: “no really spiritual religionist would speak of God by any pronoun implying sex, if the English language had a pronoun of common gender . . . . The writer avoids the difficulty in his own writings by always using the compound pronouns ‘He-She,’ ‘His-Her,’ and ‘Him-Her’ in referring to God."
“Our changing language.” Arizona Republic, 23 Dec., 1922, p. 4. The writer calls for a new pronoun, in part because “We do not think the feminists will always stand for the discrimination involved in ‘his’ when referring at the same time to both males and females.” The article includes an early mention of the honorific Ms.:
ha, hez, hem The Forum 77 (1927): 265-68 A writer responding to the Forum’s call for new words to be put in a hypothetical dictionary of American English that would be published a decade hence, in 1937, calls for a “bisexual pronoun” and recommends this paradigm. Attributed by H. L. Mencken to Lincoln King, of Primghar, Iowa. (American Language, New York, Knopf, 4th ed., 1936, 460n).
hesh (heesh), hizzer, himmer; on Linguist and educator Fred Newton Scott responds to King’s suggestion of ha, hez, hem. by mentioning the earlier creation of on The Forum 77: 754. Mencken adds, “In 1934 James F. Morton, of the Paterson (N.J.) Museum, proposed to change hesh to heesh and to restore hiser and himer” (American Language Supp. 2, 1948, 370).
thir Sir John Adams; cited by Philip Howard, New Words for Old (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1977), 95.
she, shis, shim (gender-specific parallel to he, his, him) Cited by Phillip B. Ballard, Thought and Language (London: Univ. of London Press, 1934), 7-8.
himorher; hes (pron. [his]), hir (pron. [hir]), hem; his’n, her’n “The Post Impressionist.” Washington Post, 20 Aug., 1935, p. 6.
se, sim, sis Gregory Hynes, “See?” Liverpool Echo, 21 Sept.; cited by H. L. Mencken (American Language Supp. 2, 1948, 370).
heesh A. A. Milne; cited by Maxwell Nurnberg, What’s the Good Word? A New Way to Better English (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1942, 88-90).
hse Buwei Yang Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (N.Y.: Vintage, Random House, 3rd ed., 1963, rpt. 1972), xxiv.
che, chis, chim Frank Colby, in his column, “Take my word for it,” in the Washington, D.C., Evening Star, 29 Jan., 1951, p. 33, cites correspondent W.E.F. of Pittsburgh, who recommends this paradigm to replace “the awkward ‘he or she’ in speaking of persons of both sexes." Colby reminds readers that thon is already in the dictionary.
kin Replaces all pronouns in the language of the people of Ata. Dorothy Bryant, The Comforter, rpt. 1971, The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (N.Y.: Random House/Moon Books), p. 51.
she (contains he), heris, herim Dana Densmore, “Speech is the Form of Thought,” No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation (April, 1970); cited in Media Report to Women 3.1 (Jan. 1975): 12.
co (from IE *ko), cos Mary Orovan, Humanizing English (N.Y. : the author).
ve, vis, ver Varda (Murrell) One. Everywoman, 8 May, 2.
ta, ta-men (pl.); a borrowing from Mandarin Chinese. Leslie E. Blumenson, New York Times, 30 Dec., 1971.
tey, term, tem; him/herself Casey Miller and Kate Swift, “What about New Human Pronouns?” Current 138 (1972): 43-45.
fm Paul Kay, Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association 13 (Apr., 1972): 3.
it; z Abigail Cringle of Edgerton, Maryland, rejects epicene it, prefers z. Washington Post, 2 May, 1972, Sec. A, 19.
shis, shim, shims, shimself Robert B. Kaplan, Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association 13 (June, 1972): 4.
ze (from Ger. sie), zim, zees, zeeself; per (from person), pers Steven Polgar of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, proposes the ze paradigm; John Clark offers per. Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association 13 (Sept.): 17-18.
na, nan, naself June Arnold, The Cook and the Carpenter (Plainfield, VT: Daughters, Inc., 1973).
it; s/he Norma Wilson et al., editors, “A Woman’s New World Dictionary,” 51%: A Paper of Joyful Noise for the Majority Sex, 1973, pp. 3-4.
s/he; him/er; his-or-her Cited and rejected by Gordon Wood, “The Forewho—Neither a He, a She, nor an It,” American Speech 48 (1973): 158-59.
shem; herm Quidnunc, “Thon—That’s the Forewho,” American Speech 48 (1973): 300-02.
se (pron. [si]), ser (pron. [sir]), sim (pron. [sim]), simself William Cowan, of the Department of Linguistics, Carleton University (Ottawa), Times Two 6 (24 May, 1973): n.p.
j/e, m/a, m/e, m/es, m/oi; jee, jeue Monique Wittig employs the slashed pronouns as feminines, and cites the latter two, which employ the more traditional feminine e; Le corps lesbien (Paris: Editions de Minuit); The Lesbian Body, trans. David LeVay (London: Peter Owen, 1975).
heesh, heesh’s, heeshself Poul Anderson, The Day of Their Return. New York: Nelson Doubleday/New American Library, 1973. The pronouns are used to refer to a “triune” species, the Didonians, but only halfheartedly; he is used as well.
ne, nis, ner Mildred Fenner attributes this to Fred Wilhelms. Today’s Education 4 (1974): 110.
she (includes he) Gena Corea, “Frankly Feminist,” rpt. as “How to Eliminate the Clumsy ‘He,’” Media Report to Women 3.1 (Jan. 1975): 12.
en, es, ar David H. Stern of Pasadena, California, The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan., 1974, Sec. 2, p. 4.
hisorher; herorhis; ve, vis, vim Cited by Amanda Smith, Washington Post, 11 Apr., 1974, Sec. A, 29.
shem, hem, hes Paul L. Silverman of Rockville, Maryland, Washington Post, 17 Dec., 1974, Sec. A, 17.
hir, herim (facetious) Milton Mayer, “On the Siblinghood of Persons,” The Progressive 39 (Sept., 1975): 20-21.
hesh, himer, hiser, hermself Jan Verley Archer, “Use New Pronouns,” Media Report to Women 3.1 (Jan., 1975): 12.
se (pron. [si]) H. R. Lee of Alexandria, Virginia, Forbes 116 (15 Aug., 1975): 86.
ey, eir, em; uh Christine M. Elverson of Skokie, Illinois, Chicago Tribune, 23 Aug., 1975, Sec. 1, p. 12.
h’orsh’it (facetious blend of he, or, she, and it) Joel Weiss of Northbrook, Illinois, Forbes 116 (15 Sept., 1975): 12.
ho, hom, hos, homself (from Lat. homo, ‘man,’ and prefix homo-, ‘the same, equal, like’) Donald K. Darnell, in Donald K. Darnell and Wayne Brockriede, Persons Communicating (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 148.
he or she; to be written as (s)he Elizabeth Lane Beardsley, “Referential Genderization,” in Carol C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky, eds., Women and Philosophy (N.Y.: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976), 285-93.
she, herm, hs (facetious; pron. “zzz”) Paul B. Horton, “A Sexless Vocabulary for a Sexist Society,” Intellect 105 (Dec., 1976): 159-60.
it Millicent Rutherford, “One Man in Two Is a Woman,” English Journal (Dec., 1976): 11.
po, xe, jhe Cited as recent and ephemeral by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and Women: New Language in New Times (Rpt., N.Y.: Anchor Press, 130). Paul Dickson, Words (1982), p. 113, attributes jhe, pronounced “gee,” to Professor Milton A. Stern of the University of Michigan.
E, E’s, Em; one E was created by psychologist Donald G. MacKay of the University of California at Los Angeles.
e, ris, rim Werner Low, Washington Post, 20 Feb., 1977, Sec. C, 6.
sheme, shis, shem; heshe, hisher, himmer Thomas H. Middleton, “Pondering the Personal Pronoun Problem,” Saturday Review 59 (9 Mar., 1977). Sheme, etc. proposed by Thomas S. Jackson of Washington, D. C.; Middleton refers to proposals for heshe, hisher, himmer.
em, ems Jeffrey J. Smith (using pseudonym TINTAJL jefry) Em Institute Newsletter (June, 1977).
ae Cited by Cheris Kramer(ae), Barrie Thorne, and Nancy Henley, “Perspectives on Language and Communication,” Signs 3 (1978): 638-51, as occurring in fiction, especially science fiction.
hir Ray A. Killian, Managers Must Lead! (AMACOM) press release; cited in “The Epicene Pronoun Yet Again,” American Speech 54 (1979): 157-58.
hesh, hizer, hirm; sheehy; sap (from homo sapiens) Tom Wicker, “More About He/She and Thon,” New York Times, 14 May, 1978, Sec. 4, p. 19. Hesh etc. proposed by Prof. Robert Longwell of the University of Northern Colorado; sheehy by David Kraus of Bell Harbor, N.Y.; sap (facetiously) by Dr. Lawrence S. Ross, of Huntington, N.Y.; Wicker adds that several readers offered blends of he, she, and it.
heesh, hiser(s), herm, hermself Leonora A. Timm, “Not Mere Tongue in Cheek: The Case for a Common Gender Pronoun in English,” International Journal of Women’s Studies 1 (1978): 555-65.
þe (the), im, ir(s) Reviving the Old English letter called thorn, to be used for the unvoiced th sound. þe (the) is to rhyme with ‘he’ and contrast with 2 pers. sg. voiced thee. þane (‘thane’) to be used for person of unspecified sex: man, woman, þane. John Newmeyer, Ph.D., of San Francisco, in The People’s Almanac # 2, by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace (New York: William Morrow, 1978), pp. 1374-75.
one Lillian E. Carleton, “An Epicene Suggestion,” American Speech 54 (1979): 156-57.
et, ets, etself Aline Hoffman of Sarnia, Ontario; cited by William Sherk, Brave New Words (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1979).
hir, hires, hirem, hirself Jerome Ch’en, Professor of History at York University, New York Times, 6 Jan., 1979, p. 18.
shey, sheir, sheirs; hey, heir, heirs Paul Encimer favors the first over the second paradigm. The Peacemaker 32 (Feb., 1979): 2-3.
it Herman Arthur, “To Err Is Huperson; to Forgive, Divine,” American Educator 4 (Winter, 1979): 30-32.
heshe, hes, hem Ronald C. Corbyn, “Getting Around Sexist Pronouns,” Anthropology Newsletter 22 (Oct., 1979): 10-11.
shey, shem, sheir Mauritz Johnson; cited by William Safire, What’s the Good Word? (N.Y.: Times Books, 1982), 30.
E, Ir Subject and possessive forms, created by the Broward County, Florida, public schools; cited by Paul Dickson in Words (N. Y.: Delacorte, 1982), 113.
hiser McClain B. Smith, Ann Arbor News, 20 Jan., 1984, Sec. A, 6.
hes Ernie Permentier, Ms. (May, 1984): 22.
hann Steven Schaufele, of the Univ. of Illinois linguistics department, takes this from Old Norse, already the source of some English pronouns; analogous to Finnish han. Colorless Green Newsflashes 4 (9 Nov., 1984), 3. See Swedish hen, 2015.
herm Jenny Cheshire traces this to the magazine Lysistrata. “A Question of Masculine Bias,” Today’s English 1 (1985): 26.
a, un, a’s Although she prefers singular they, Ursula K. Le Guin used this paradigm, based on British dialect, in a 1985 screenplay for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); the novel itself uses he/his/him. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” (1976, revised, 1987), in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove Press, 1989), p. 15.
han, hans A. M. Stratford, of Norfolk, England, creates this form to resemble other British initials (HM, HRH, HMS, HE, HMSO), English Today 14 (1988):5-6.
e, e’s (from the common letter in he and she) Eugene Wine, of Miami-Dade Community College, also notes that I and you “have already been reduced to a single vowel sound.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 Sept., 1988, p. 2.
ala, alum, alis Michael Knab, of Goodwin, Knab and Co., Chicago, derives these from Lat. al, ‘other’ and feels they resemble the Hawaiian sex-neutral pronouns oia, ia. Press release and personal communication.
e, e’s, emself, em Victor J. Stone, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana. In the Chicago Bar Association’s CBA Record 3 (July/Aug., 1989): 12.
1991 de/deis; den/din Richard Strand, Keith Roberson, Dan Fisher, BLAST (Computer) Support Office, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Univ. of Illinois. de/deis (rhymes with `dee/dyes’) created de novo with some Germanic influence; den/din created on a similar ‘root’ to replace man/woman and men/women.
se, hir According to John Cowan (email communication, 1992), this paradigm is regularly used on the electronic newsgroup alt.sex.bondage.
E, e, es, eself Qing Guo proposed this on the computer network newsgroup alt.usage.english (1992); the majuscule is the subject form, the lower case e the object form; also proposed are U, u, ur, urs, urself, urselves for the second person paradigm.
ghach Marc Okrand uses this epicene pronoun in the Klingon language which he created for the Star Trek series, 1992. There are no common gender pronouns in Vulcan.
The following appear in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. Tom McArthur (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), s.v. generic pronoun:
han Business writer Audrie Stratford, Ling’s Lynn, England.
hey Ronald Gill, of Derby, England.
mef George Wardell, Reading, England.
ws, wself Dr. John B, Sykes, editor, Concise Oxford Dictionary, 7th ed.
ze, zon Don Manley, Oxford, England.
The issue of common gender invented pronouns goes beyond English. The Swedish common gender pronoun hen (joining the masculine han and the feminine hon) was coined around 1996 and received official approval in 2015, when it was added to the dictionary of the Swedish Academy, the Svenska Akadamiens Ordbok. Note: hen and the many other new Swedish words are not yet in the online version of the SAO, which awaits updating.
Even though hen has become familiar enough that newspapers no longer feel the need to explain the term to their readers, and despite official recognition from the Swedish Academy, the new pronoun remains controversial.
The following montage of screen caps from the Swedish/Danish television series The Bridge shows the Swedish police detective, Saga Norén, on the right, using the new term seriously, and her Danish colleague, Hanne Thomsen, on the left, sardonically questioning this “politically correct” usage.
[The Bridge, series 3, episode 1, first broadcast on the BBC, Nov. 2015]
Note: With the exception of the entry for hen, I have not updated the list past 1992 because recent coinages are many, and much easier to find. Recent interest in singular they can be found in these Web of Language posts:
 The original version of this list appeared in my article, “The epicene pronoun: The word that failed” (American Speech 56 , pp. 83-97); and a later collection can be found in my book, Grammar and gender (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986). Because of recent interest in nonbinary pronouns and singular they, and the availability of large, digitized databases of early periodicals, I have updated the list of pronoun proposals through the 1950s, adding links and illustrations, and I have also included early comments for or against singular they.