In Defence of Pronouns
Dan Clayton asks what's behind the Right's obsession with this humble part of speech and with other people's parts?
“Now even God could be going gender neutral”, bemoaned the Daily Mail in February 2023, reporting (in its own inimitable way) on discussions within the Church of England over gendered language, including pronouns. It took me back to the 1980s and visiting the house of the only feminist in the village with my mum and being tickled by the playful slogan on one of her fridge magnets: “When God made man, she was only joking”. Innocent times.
More recently though, as the UK’s right-wing press tediously attests to almost every week, the discourse around gender has grown more toxic. One Times columnist announced that “Declaring your pronouns is pure narcissism” and a disgruntled commentator on Twitter, noting the visible bulge in the trouser region of a pop performer who uses ‘they’ pronouns, was moved to exclaim “Your they/thems are showing”, and we don’t have to look too far to see the forces of the self-proclaimed ‘anti-woke’ movement urging various unpleasant things to be done to pronouns and the people they refer to, whether it’s to “whack the wokerati right in their pronouns” or to “eradicate the word ‘pronouns’ from the English language”. Good luck with that last one.
It’s fairly evident that for many people, the word ‘pronoun’ has shifted in meaning. And that’s fine, because as any linguist will tell you, language change is natural and inevitable, often mirroring the movement of attitudes in society. But we might argue that this particular semantic shift offers an insight into where that society is heading, and it’s not very healthy.