I sometimes struggle in a world that seems to be changing at a dizzying pace. Even though I don’t see myself as resistant to change (for the most part), some of my efforts to keep pace, I fear, are ineffective. It often leaves me feeling frustrated, and I think that’s because I’m afraid of being left behind, of becoming obsolete or being found insubstantial. So, for example, if I lose connectivity with the internet and my TV thus taunts me with a simple message to that effect, I stand like a fool in front of my TV with a collection of remote controls (some of which I should have parted with years ago and another of which I suspect is an egg timer), and begin clicking every button. When I’ve exhausted all available buttons and have shaken or pounded the life out of each gadget, I unplug every cord from every nearby device and replug them one by one, and hope for the best. Some areas where learning could — and should —take place, just don’t exhibit obvious signs of growth.
Where it concerns change, however, in another realm, I try mightily to trot along with the crowd, and maintain an open and willing mind. It’s indeed heartening to see that our society is striving to create a little distance between reality and our hurtful patriarchal past. In particular, there’s a long overdue yet growing sensitivity with regard to gender-based identity. Admittedly, there’s a great deal of push-pull in the exercise — as can be expected in times of great societal re-shaping. The tussle reflects most overtly in the writing of laws — with each law passed that endeavors to provide a measure of fairness and comfort, there’s another one that sends the pendulum swinging wide in the opposite direction. Change can be uncomfortable — big change is hard.
One change that should be coming more easily to me is surprising and vexing me with how difficult I am finding it. My background includes a solid understanding of language (I have my high school Spanish teacher Sr. Faria to thank for instilling a love of foreign languages), so the expanded applications and use of the pronouns they/them/their to refer to a gender-neutral person should result in a positive embracing of the utilitarian nature of these pronouns. I say utilitarian because they, them, and their have long been used to refer to an antecedent of indefinite gender, even in the singular. (Here is a perfectly acceptable example: Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by their parents. I used to wrestle with the acceptability of using a pronoun that implied a plural antecedent, and would have said or written the sentence in this cumbersome way: “Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by his or her parents.”) Having been assured that Chaucer on occasion used the plural pronoun in similar instances, I am reasonably appeased.
It is one thing to accept the new normal, to get totally behind it — it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice or to navigate the new contexts in which I find it. This morning I read an article in The Atlantic about homeownership that was a fresh and highly engaging perspective. I was taken by surprise by the claim that homeowners these days are staying put longer than was happening when my husband and I bought our first house in the mid-80’s. Compare the five-to-seven year average from 1985 to mid-2000’s with the current average of 13 years, figures provided by HousingWire, a real estate news outfit. As I read along, musing that our first ownership lasted exactly 13 years — evidently, we far exceeded the average, I wondered about the reasons why homeowners these days stay put for a much longer stretch of time. It’s an idea that needs to be parsed, but perhaps later. I quickly got hung up on the featured homeowners, that weren’t homeowners, per se, but rather, homeowner (singular). The proliferation of they, them and their kept tripping me up, so unaccustomed am I to the evolving nature of gender-marking pronouns. I quickly found that my reading comprehension — which is never sharp in the best of circumstances — dropped to an even lower level. Unable to get back on track, I went into a panic. I was overthinking every sentence, looking at each as a mechanical arrangement of lifeless words that performed specific functions but conveyed no meaning. Subject-verb-object or subject-verb-adjective-object or subject-verb-possessive pronoun-object. I could no longer make sense of what I was reading, and it was all because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that a plural pronoun was being used for a singular antecedent. It’s like when someone tells you not to think about such-and-such, and then all you can do is think about it. At one point, I contemplated recasting the subject as a couple instead of one person, but that had no hope of working because I knew that the story was about Neilson, just Neilson, not Neilson and Amelia, or Neilson and David, or Neilson and their pet rabbit Twinkie. (See what I mean? Didn’t you just think that Neilson and somebody else had a pet rabbit Twinkie?)
Change is not easy. A part of me wants to re-read the article over and over until it feels natural. There’s a lot to recommend that approach, because it’s through repeated exposure that I’ll become accustomed to the pronouns’ new applications. On the other hand, I’m aware that there is another set of pronouns already out there that, unlike they/them/their; always refer to a singular, gender-neutral antecedent. Thon, thon’s, and thonself, where “thon” is a contracted form of “that one”. I find these words appealing because they’re so unfamiliar that I wouldn’t already have a fixed understanding or pre-conceived concept of their meaning. The freshness of these words would — in my mind — suit the new expectation. If I read the phrase, “When Neilson bought thon first home…” I wouldn’t have to first undo my understanding about Neilson and someone else; it would be Neilson. . . just gender-neutral Neilson.
It’s doubtful that thon and its other forms will ever garner enough followers to make it a viable pronoun. In my opinion, it’s a tragic waste, given that Merriam Webster had preserved its place in their dictionary from 1934-1961; alas, it was removed due to lack of use. Thon’s inner flame was extinguished too early, one might say.
As disappointed as I am that enough people are unlikely to be inspired to resurrect a perfectly adequate but demoted word, I’m nevertheless invigorated by this recent evidence of the transformative nature of our language’s pronouns. It is hoped that the adoption by the masses of better means to communicate gender identity will result in greater understanding and empathy. Now to invest the effort required to become skilled in their expanded uses. Right alongside efforts to identify remote control devices, as well as cords running — at times mysteriously — from wall outlets to contrivances like modems, cable boxes, security cameras, Roku streaming stick, Sonos speakers, Wii gizmo, and (oh, yes!) the TV.