English language Uncategorized

Sex symbols

Q: In a recent radio appearance, you said the idea that “he” can refer to any human being – man or woman – was introduced in the 18th century by a female grammarian. I think you’re wrong. The concept of male as universal has been around much longer.

A: If by “male as universal,” you mean using male pronouns (“he,” “him,” and “his”) for women as well as men, the idea did indeed begin in the 18th century.

Before then – for two centuries, in fact – it was considered acceptable to use “they,” “them,” and “their” as singular or plural pronouns for either men or women.

[Note: An updated post on the use of “they” in singular references was published on May 22, 2017.]

Anne Fisher, the first woman to write an English grammar, was also the first grammarian to suggest that the pronoun “he” be used generically for either sex.

In the mid-18th century, she proposed that “he” be a sex-neutral, third-person singular in cases where gender was indefinite. For example, on second reference to “someone,” “anyone,” and so on, as in “Does anyone think he knows the answer?”

There’s no surviving copy of the first edition of Fisher’s book, A New Grammar With Exercises of Bad English, but it was advertised for sale in 1745. It was followed in 1750 by a second edition (which we do have), and 30 more editions came later, making the book one of the most popular guides of its time.

One reason her book is so important historically (there are other reasons, too) is its suggestion that “he” and company be used as a blanket term for both sexes.

The Masculine Person,” Fisher wrote, “answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says.”

Fisher’s book was widely pirated. Another grammarian, John Kirkby, said the same thing soon after Fisher’s first edition came out, but language scholars feel he plagiarized the idea from her.

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, a linguist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and an expert on early English grammars, has written a fascinating paper that includes much information on Fisher. The paper, which was originally published in the journal Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics, is available online.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was acceptable to use “they,” “them,” and “their” as all-purpose pronouns. “They” and the rest could be either masculine or feminine, singular or plural – as “you” can be today.

The grammarians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who condemned the use of “they” as a singular pronoun (and deprived us of one of the handiest usages) were perhaps influenced by Fisher. If you’d like to read more, I’ve written about “they” on the blog before.

Etymologically speaking – that is, focusing only on word formation – this male-vs.-female business has given rise to many myths. Here are a few facts:

(1) “Female” isn’t related etymologically to “male. We got it from the Latin femella, a diminutive of femina, the Latin for “woman.” The word “male,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin masculus. When “female” entered English in the early 1300s it was spelled “femelle,” similar to the word in Old French. The spelling “female” arose later out of confusion with the spelling of “male.”

(2) “Woman” isn’t derived from “man.” In Anglo-Saxon times, manna and other early versions of our modern word “man” referred merely to a person regardless of sex – that is, a human being. A single or married man was a wer (“male person”) or a waepman (“weapon person”). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman (both meant simply a woman). Over many hundreds of years (roughly, from 700 until 1400), wer and waepman fell out of use and were replaced by “man”; meanwhile, wif became “wife” and wifman became “woman.” So both “man” and woman” were derived from a universal term that was neither masculine nor feminine.

(3) There’s no “man” in “human.” We got the word “human” in the 14th century from the Latin humanus (of or belonging to humankind). Humanus in turn is related to the Latin homo. The Romans used homo for a person in general, vir for a male, and femina for a female.

(4) There’s no “his” in “history.” We got the word “history” from the Latin historia (an account or narrative). The English pronoun “his” isn’t part of the word.

My husband and I discuss these and many other myths about English in Origins of the Specious, a new book that’s coming out next spring from Random House.

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