Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Four Words Missing from the English Language

We speakers of English really have it made. Our language is probably the most comprehensive tool for expressing ourselves ever developed by humankind. The Oxford English Dictionary contains about a quarter of a million distinct English words. When we consider that many of those words have multiple meanings and can be used in multiple senses (for example as both a noun and a verb), the number of usable words increases dramatically. Add on top of that hundreds of thousands of different chemicals, drugs and other scientific names, and the list of English words could easily top a million.

You'd think with all those words at our disposal—with the ability to call at will upon such goodies as "bower" and "kip" and "wincey"—that everyday speech and writing would be a breeze. Well, it would be, except for the sad fact that there are four words missing from the English language. Missing?! Yes, and these are not obscure words either. I'm not talking about, for example, a word to express the wrinkles under the legs of a horny toad. No, these are words that, if available, we would use all the time in our everyday lives. These are words that we need, and they don't exist!

I won't keep you in suspense any longer. The four words missing from the English language are words needed to express the common pronouns "he" and "she" and their variations in a gender-neutral manner. Simply put, we need a word that means "he or she," a word that means "him or her," a word that means "his or hers" and a word that means "himself or herself."

In these politically-correct times, most of us want to give both sexes their due, but without these words available to us that can often be difficult. Consider, for example, how cumbersome this simple English sentence becomes: "When the person in the chicken suit gets here, he or she may need to excuse himself or herself, because his or her sports team is trying to reach him or her."

Isn't that a mess?! And it gets worse when the context of what we're saying or writing demands that we go on like this for sentence after sentence. Most people just give up and use the male pronouns to implicitly include the female, kind of like using "mankind" when you really mean "humankind." But that, of course, simply ignores the problem, and it certainly isn't gender-neutral, even if you reverse it and throw in some "shes" and "hers" every few sentences.

Worse yet is when people wrongly use variants of the plural word "they" in referring to an individual man or woman, as in "The person in the chicken suit just fell on their tail." This drives me nuts, and it just emphasizes that English does have gender-neutral pronouns for multiple men and/or women, but not for the singular.

I think we can do better. If we can come up with 40 silly new drug names every day, surely we can coin four new words that we really need.

Here's my suggestion. Rather than coming up with totally new words that people will have to learn from scratch, lets just combine the existing male and female pronouns into new words. For example, "heshe" refers to a person of indeterminate sex, "hisher" is its possessive form, and "himherself" is… well, you know what it is. For the objective form I suggest "herhim," because it puts the woman first for once, I like the way it rolls off the tongue, and it creates an exception to the rule—something for which English is known.

So, lets take these new words for a spin. If we go back to our original sentence, it's much simpler now: "When the person in the chicken suit gets here, heshe may need to excuse himherself, because hisher sports team is trying to reach herhim." If it still sounds a little awkward, that's just because you aren't used to hearing the words yet. Remember how odd and silly words like "Flonase" and "GasX" sounded when you first heard them? …Okay, so they still sound silly. But trust me; with a little practice these new pronouns will become second nature.

So there you have it—"heshe," "hisher," "himherself" and "herhim"—four new words the English language desperately needs. Start using them today, and if we're lucky the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary will make them official in hisher next edition!