Steven V. Roberts: Words will fill a void

Published 11:58 pm Thursday, December 2, 2021

In 1986, The New York Times announced it would begin using the honorific “Ms.”

“Until now,” the Times explained in an editor’s note, “ ‘Ms.’ had not been used because of the belief that it had not passed sufficiently into the language to be accepted as common usage. The Times now believes that ‘Ms.’ has become a part of the language and is changing its policy.”

I thought of this decision when a controversy erupted in France this fall over the use of a new word, “iel,” a non-gender-specific pronoun that combines “il” and “elle,” the French words for “he” and “she.”

The dictionary Le Petit Robert accepted the word after noting “an increasing usage (in) a large body of texts drawn from various sources.” The book’s director, Charles Bimbenet, added: “Defining the words at use in the world helps us to better understand it.”

The French linguistic elite went nuts, since understanding the world is apparently not part of their mission. “Inclusive writing is not the future of the French language,” thundered education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.

Lawmaker Francois Jolivet accused Le Robert of promoting “an obvious ideological intrusion that undermines our common language and its influence,” and called the authors “militants of a cause that has nothing to do with France: #wokisme.”

True, “wokisme” can impose a stultifying conformity on intellectual vitality. But Le Robert is defending the exact opposite of that. It’s the French elites who are demanding allegiance to an “obvious ideological” rigidity.

As Bimbenet states, language is a tool to help us better understand the world. That’s why language has to keep changing and evolving. That’s what happened with the growing use, and acceptance, of the term “Ms.” The feminist revolution demanded that women no longer be defined by their marital status or their relationship to men, and “Ms.” emerged as a term that met that demand.

It took a while. As Ben Zimmer wrote in a 2009 Times piece, “In the Nov. 10, 1901, edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., tucked away in an item at the bottom of Page 4, an unnamed writer put forth a modest proposal. ‘There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill,’ the writer began.” That void was the absence of a term “which does homage to the sex (of a woman) without expressing any views as to their domestic situation.” The writer presciently suggested the use of “Ms.,” even offering a pronunciation: “Mizz.”

It took another 71 years for “Ms.” to become the name of a new feminist magazine, and 14 years after that for the Times to accept the term. On the 31st anniversary of that milestone, Meliss Arteaga wrote in Ms.: “It made sense to us from the start: ‘Ms.’ is how you address a woman as a whole person … We were not defined in relation to men. We simply were.”

That brings us back to the current controversy: how to fill another linguistic “void” — the absence of a pronoun that accurately describes a person who embraces a nonbinary gender identity. The French are trying one option, a made-up word, and as linguist Dennis Baron notes, English speakers have been experimenting with similar neologisms since the 14th century.

Peter Rosen reports for the KSL-TV website that over the years, “the suggestions included ‘ip,’ ‘se,’ ‘um’ and ‘le.’ There was ‘hizzer’ (a combination of ‘his’ and ‘her’), ‘heesh’ (‘he/she’) and ‘himmer’ (‘him/her’).”

None stuck. Now there is a push to employ “they” to fill the void. The Merriam-Webster dictionary recognized the attempt two years ago: “’They’ is taking on a new use … as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female.”

Here’s the obvious problem: “They” is often an exceedingly awkward and uncomfortable solution. We have all been trained to think of it as a plural, not a singular, pronoun. “It may feel a little weird,” Merriam-Webster admits. “Or you may think it’s unnecessary. You may be confused by all the new terminology.”

Rosen quotes Lori Miller, the mother of a nonbinary child, who struggles like many of us: “My brain just goes, ‘That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong.’ ”

So the search continues. Perhaps English speakers will eventually come up with a new word like the French “iel.” Perhaps “they” will gain wider acceptance as folks rewire their brains. But one thing is clear: When a linguistic void appears, words will eventually evolve to fill it — no matter what the French education minister says.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Contact him at