Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Singularization of They

(A version of this article appeared recently in the October edition of Lexpert).

The singularization of “they”


Howard Richler

Although the English language offers its speaker a large vocabulary, it is missing some useful words particularly in the realm of referencing other people. For example, many people are not comfortable with referencing their in-laws as Mom and Dad, yet are not comfortable with calling them by their first names. Some term of endearment more accurate than Mom or Dad would fill this void.

The English language also lacks a name for unmarried persons who share a

domestic and romantic relationship. Terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sound adolescent, “lover” is too blatant, “lady friend” and “gentlemen” are euphemistic and “significant other” is meaningless. Ironically, Quebec French has solved this problem by importing the English word “chum” to fulfill this vocabulary need. Many other words are used in English to refer to this relationship, such as “partner,” “companion,” and “cohabitor” but all of them are either euphemistic-sounding or inaccurate. In 1980 the U.S. Census Bureau invented the acronym POSSLQ which accurately describes this relationship. It stands for “Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.” Not surprisingly, the term is not employed outside of bureaucratic venues.

Seeing that the Quebec French has solved this problem by usurping the English word “chum.” I suggest we exact retribution by appropriating a French word. My suggestion is the word “co-vivant.” English already uses the French term “bon vivant” to refer to someone who enjoys the “good life,” and putting the prefix “co” in front of “vivant” highlights the idea that one’s pleasures should be shared -the essence of a relationship.

English also lacks a neutral third person singular pronoun. Thus in the sentence “If anyone wants a hamburger ___ can have one,” we have a choice of using either the words “he” or “she” in which case we may be making an incorrect statement as to gender; or we can use the word “they” in which case “they” is seemingly not in agreement with its singular antecedent “anyone.” Saying “he or she” solves this problem but its usage is somewhat cumbersome.

Contrary to popular opinion, the generic “he” is not a long-established usage in the English language. It was not until the 18th century that this rule appeared in English grammar books and it was not until the 19th century that the rule became entrenched. In fact, in 1850 an Act of Parliament in England gave official sanction to this recently established concept of the generic “he.” Parliament ordained that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”

As language is primarily a tool to communicate, the generic “he” is clearly faulty because it provides false or misleading information about the sex of the referents. For example, if one says “Everyone on the choir raised his voice in song,” one is giving the impression that it is an all male ensemble.

Many languages avoid sex designation in pronouns by having a word such as the Turkish o which can refer to “he or “she.” Similarly in Finnish hän can refer to a man or a woman. In English, over eighty words have been suggested to cover this situation such as “te,” “ter,” “tem,” “hesh,” “co,” “shem,” and “thon,” but none of them has acquired much currency. In fact, when Webster's International Dictionary , Second Edition was published in 1934 the word “thon” was listed but when the Third Edition was released in 1962 this entry was not included because hardly anyone had used this new pronoun in the interim. Languages are resistant to accepting new words that are central to their grammar.

What to do? For me, the issue is clear. Pronoun envy aside, the intent of language is to communicate, and by using “he” or “his” we may be imparting incorrect or misleading information about the sex of the participants. John McWhorter, in The Word on the Street, says that “they” is “singular as well as plural for the simple reason that the language has changed and made it so. The idea that ‘they’ is only a plural pronoun is an illusion based on treating the English of one thousand years ago as if it was somehow hallowed, rather than just one arbitrary stage of an endless evolution over time.” After all, centuries ago a distinction was made between “thou and “you,” with the former referring to a second person singular pronoun and the latter to a second person plural pronoun, but by the 17th century “thou” fell into disuse in standard English.

I don’t expect everyone is going to agree with me on this issue. To each their own.

Howard's next book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in 2013.


(This article first appeared in the linguistic magazine Word Ways in a slightly different format).


It is common knowledge that man`s ability to communicate sets him apart from other creatures. Only recently, however, has it been discovered (much to the chagrin of L’Acadamie Française) that man has been using English palindromes throughout the aeons. A paleontologist has interpreted one of the oldest cave murals ever found to be saying, “Og,go!'” Civilization is replete with significant palindromic ejaculations. In chronological order, here are some of the noteworthy palindromic utterances.

Was it Ararat I saw? (On the 17th day of the 7th month of confinement with odorous beasts, Noah does a double take when the ark comes to a rest upon Mount Ararat; circa 3500 B.C.)

Sex, Rex Xerxes? (Attributed to an Athenian courtesan after the Persian king Xerxes led an invasion of Greece; 480 B.C.)

Splat! I await Alps. (A wary Hannibal lingers at the foothills of The Alps after one of his soldiers was crushed by an elephant; 218 B.C.)

Draw O Caesar, erase a coward! (Cicero`s advice to Caesar to launch a pre-emptive counterattack against Brutus goes unheeded; 44 B.C.)

Mary bred a derby ram. (To supplement Jacob’s meager carpenter’s income, Mary raises thoroughbred rams. The one named Shofar goes on to sweep the Triple Crown of sheep racing; 3 B.C.)

Lepers, alas, repel. (A leper begs Jesus to cure him so that he can meet a nice Jewish girl on J-Date. (27 A.D.)

Rise, sir. (Jesus commands Lazarus to come alive; 28 A.D.)

No! Rome, moron. (Attila chastises a hearing-challenged Hun who was heading to pillage Nome, Alaska; 452.)

Was it a rat I saw? (Attributed to the Pied Piper of Hamelin ; 1284.)

Hot, oh! (Joan of Arc is barbecued; 1431.)

Egad! A base tone denotes a bad age. (French astrologer Michel Nostradamus in

Centuries predicts the onslaught of oxymoronic hip-hop music; 1555.)

Sums are deified, Erasmus. (John Calvin decries society`s materialism to Desiderius Erasmus; 1563.)

Posh serf – a fresh sop. Referring to Oliver Cromwell, the last words spoken by Charles 1 at his 1649 execution.

Able was I ere I saw Elba. (A marooned Napoleon (known in palindromese as the "namable Elba man") raves in English  during his exile; 1821.)

X Ramses? - Order red roses, Marx! (Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx`s Communist Manifesto collaborator chastises Marx for acting like a sexist bourgeois pig; 1848.)

No in uneven union! (Jefferson Davis exhorts the South to secede from the Union; 1861.)

Are we not drawn onwards, we Jews, drawn onward to new era? Theodore Herzl tries to drum support for Zionism; 1897.)

A man, a plan, a canal- Panama. (Woodrow Wilson dedicates the opening of the Panama Canal to its` chief engineer, George Washington Goethals; 1914.)

Jar a tonga; nag not a raj. (Winston Churchill admonishes Mahatma Gandhi; 1942.)

Can I attain a C? (Dubya soliloquizes in his quest for mediocrity while attending Yale; 1967)

Nu, Nasser? Race - caress a nun. (Attributed to Golda Meir; 1969.)

Neil, an Alien! (Astronaut Buzz Aldrin mistakes his own shadow for a Moonman; 1969.)

Drat! Sadat a dastard. (Ariel Sharon expresses his distrust of Anwar Sadat during the Camp David negotiations; 1979.)

Di, did I as I said I did? (An absent-minded Prince Charles asks his wife, Princess Diana, if she remembers what he has just said; 1987.)

Egad! A Red loses older adage.(Ronald Reagan admits that Gorby seems to be a swell type of guy; 1988.)

Drat! Saddam a mad dastard. (The Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah expresses his disgust at the chicanery of Saddam Hussein; 1990.)

Sex at noon taxes. (Attributed to Bill Clinton declining a midday service call from Monica; 1998.)

Now, I won. (George Bush is relieved after the Supreme Court rules that he has won Florida's 25 electoral votes and will thus become the 43rd President of the United States; 2000.)

No, it is open. I felt, Bush, subtle fine position. (Attributed to Vladmir Putin speaking to George W Bush. It is unclear whether Putin is referring to Russian society, or to Bush’s zipper; 2005.)

Imam am I. (Attributed to Muqtada al Sadr who in a clandestine meeting with Condoleeza Rice in Baghdad tells her that he should not be addressed as His Holiness; 2007.)

Tao mania in a moat. (Headline in the Rangoon Gazette tells up the mass drowning suicides of monks protesting the repression by the Burmese government; 2007,)

Sex? Obama boxes! (An aide to Barack Obama vigorously denies that his boss is having an affair and explains that Obama’s chief extra-curricular activities are b-ball and boxing; 2008.)

Not now! Foe Tibetan ate bite of won ton. (China’s President Hu Jintao is vexed when his spying on the Dalai Lama is disrupted; 2008.)

THE END (for now)
DNE EHT (won rof)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Yiddish Cursing Then & Now

Jewish Curses – Then & Now


Howard Richler

Verbal wit can serve as a safe outlet for repressed impulses, and if your aggression is likely to elicit retaliation, it is prudent that your slings and arrows be linguistic rather than physical. Cursing has proved to be a cathartic tool for oppressed minorities. This is borne out by the colourful curses to be found among chronically subjugated groups such as gypsies, African-Americans and, of course, Eastern European Jews.

The Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before WWII had no problems cursing creatively, as they enjoyed the advantage of speaking Yiddish, a tongue seemingly fashioned exclusively for the prickly barb.

Yiddish curses should not be confused with the Hebraic curses of the Bible. Hebrew curses were deadly serious whereas there is a humourous thrust to almost all Yiddish curses. Although most people associate cursing with malevolence, Yiddish ones can be downright jocular. This is because the Yiddish curser usually does not believe in the power of her/his execration. Yiddish cursing developed into a choreographed activity where satisfaction was gained by ejaculating an imaginative imprecation. Many of the ditties were improvised and were designed to exhibit the verbal nimbleness of the execrator. Yiddish curses lull you with their seeming innocence, then flatten you with the punch line. An example of this verbal feinting is “May you lose all your teeth except one-so you can have a tooth ache.”

This is not to say that ill will was never directed towards others in Yiddish curses. Shtetl life in Eastern Europe was onerous and interactions did not take place in idyllically bucolic settings with fiddlers prancing on rooftops. In this environment, an acerbic wit and a good delivery could earn one much respect A good example is, “May you fall into the outhouse just as a regiment of Cossacks finishes a prune stew and twelve barrels of beer!” But in cursing your neighbour or your competitor at the market, you could pretend that the object of your scorn was the Czar or some other oppressor.

Yiddish cursing was, by and large, the domain of women. The men enjoyed sanctuary in holy studies but Jewish women were not invited to club meetings and because men devoted most of their time to religious study, women became the family providers. The only profession open to her was work at the market and to release anxiety in this hectic workplace, it was necessary to learn to “curse like a market-woman.”

Henny Youngman mother-in-law jokes notwithstanding, in Yiddish culture, a mother-in-law was not the bane of a man, but of a woman who could be constantly besieged by her mother-in-law in the home or the market. Two examples of women’s disdain for mothers- in-law are, “May your mother-in-law treat you like her own daughter and move in with you!” and “May your husband`s father marry three times so that you have not one but three mothers-in-law!”

One would never merely say “Drop dead!” in Yiddish. The simplest way of expressing this aspiration was “Into the earth with you!” Since a child could only be named after a deceased, you could kill with kindness by saying “May they name a baby after you!” One's death wish could be couched in blessings, as in “May you have a sweet death and have a wagonload of sugar run over you” ; “May God bless you with a son so smart he learns the mourner's prayer before his Bar Mitzvah speech!” and “May you be spared the indignities of old age!”

Wishing disease or pain on someone was a popular theme, especially if the individual was wealthy. Benedictions took sudden u-turns and mutated into maledictions: “May he own ten shiploads of gold-and may all of it be spent on sickness.” One peculiar ill wish was “A cholera in your bones!” It must have been felt that bone cholera was more uncomfortable than the run-of-the-mill variety. Other ill wishes included, “All problems I have in my heart should go to his head,” “May you become famous-they should name a disease after you!” and "May your blood grow so healthy, your leeches' leeches need leeches!” Anorexia nervosa was not a common ailment, and a zaftig figure was a sign of affluence and a selling point for the local matchmaker. “May you never develop stomach trouble from too rich a diet” was definitely not a blessing but it sounds desirable next to “May you grow four stomachs like a cow, so that you get four times the bellyache and four times the heartburn.”

Alas, Yiddish is not widely spoken anymore but the spirit of these curses lives on at the website Here's a sampling :

May you sell everything and retire to Florida just as global warming makes it uninhabitable.

May your insurance decide constipation is a pre-existing condition.

May the state of Arizona expand their definition of “suspected illegal immigrants ” to “anyone who doesn't hunt .”

May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and then may the ground be fracked.


Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published next Spring.