Gender-neutral folks aren’t a new thing, but as more and more people find the courage to speak out about their preferences and alignments, we find ourselves considering alternatives to choosing between the binaries of “he” and “she.” The surprising thing is that we’ve been working on that elusive pronoun for over 150 years.
Long before everyone hashed out Caitlyn Jenner’s pronoun switch in their heads, grammar nerds were already on the case. Not because gender transition was an everyday topic of conversation in the 1800s, but because the English language sucks at pronouns. Unless you explicitly reference the gender of a person you’re talking about, you’re forced to use “he or she” or “they” later in the sentence. “He or she” is clunky, and “they” is inaccurate, unless the person cloned himself or herself before you finished your sentence. You can see why grammarians have got their panties or man-panties in a knot.
According to linguistics professor Dennis Baron, as early as the 1850s, someone was asking for a gender-neutral substitute. The writer adorably asked for grammar makers to “fish us one,” as if A) There is such a thing as a grammar maker and B) He or she fishes words from a word pond.