In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.”

Generic he leaves women out. Matthews’ call for a nonbinary pronoun to replace it prompted men with names like Col. Tusker Mountebank, MBE, Major-General Havenot à Clue, or the Rev. L’Otherfoot, to write to the Times championing the invented pronouns vey, su, tu, oo, heshe, un, hes, lu, heoshe, and hesh. And one woman, Agnes Carter, defended singular they. Carter reasoned that, if plural you can function as a singular, then why not they as well?

Another writer, Lonely in Leeds, felt compelled to mansplain to those readers who might have missed the whole suffrage thing that a new pronoun would placate “what is known as the woman’s movement,” despite the fact that the phrase the woman’s movement had been around for about 80 years, adding his own expert opinion that “the English tongue was framed in days when women were of less account.” Having failed in their attempt to keep women from voting, men like Lonely insisted that any new pronouns should be women’s work, since the need for a new pronoun was clearly women’s fault.

pronouns_for_women

Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh:

You notice that I say ‘he or she’. If the English Language had been properly organized by a Business Man or Member of Parliament, instead of living from hand to mouth on almost anybody who happened to be about with a pencil, then there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’, and I could write, ‘If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis’, which would save a lot of trouble. Also I could have made a much better thing of this Birthday Book. As it is, most of the quotations refer definitely to one sex, and more often to ‘he’ than to ‘she’. But you must not let this worry you. If Aunt Emily’s birthday is on July 2nd— well no, let us hope it isn’t; but if it were on April 2nd—no, that’s wrong. Well, what I mean is that the motto for May 11th, ‘He’ll know what to do’, can be read, if necessary, as ‘She’ll know what to do’, and so on and so forth, and vice versa and otherwise. I hope that’s clear. [The Christopher Robin Birthday Book, London, 1930; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1931, pp. vi-vii.]

The Birthday Book presents a quote or motto from one of Milne’s books for each day of the year. The motto for July 2 is “He just happened to hiccup While signing his name” (Now We are Six). Women like the imaginary Aunt Emily, Milne seems to suggest, don’t hiccup in public. April 2 reads, “If John were Me, and I were John, I shouldn’t have these trousers on” (Now We are Six). Here Milne implies that he can’t mean she on April 2 because women don’t wear trousers. And the May 11 motto, the one that Milne suggests could be read for either sex without seeming rude, is “He’ll know what to do” (The House at Pooh Corner).

christopher_robin_and_pooh

Christopher Robin going down the stairs with Pooh, from Winnie the Pooh, 1926

A. A. Milne was not the first person to offer nonbinary heesh.The pronoun appears earlier, around 1865, and again in 1900, and it is re-invented or revived from time to time from 1930 to the present. The related hesh was coined as early as 1875 and it too reappears frequently, as does heer, another pronoun formed by blending masculine and feminine forms.

Most coiners of nonbinary pronouns toiled in obscurity, but Milne was a well-known literary figure, and today, discussions of nonbinary pronouns often repeat a truncated version of his comments from The Birthday Book because everybody knows Winnie the Pooh.

What most people miss, however, is the fact that Milne shrugs off heesh as soon as he mentions it in favor of generic he. And despite what Milne says about how to achieve a perfect language, neither the business types nor the MPs of the day were particularly versed in designing language, which really does belong to anyone with a pencil or a voice. Milne’s subtext is that no one really listens to a pronoun coiner. Even more telling is the fact that, in the absence of any real commitment to heesh, Milne concludes that he can be read as she, not always, to be sure—not in mottoes about hiccups or trousers—but certainly on May 11th and at some other times of the year as well.

That’s the problem with generic masculines: he just can’t be counted on to be generic. That was certainly the case with suffrage. In 1850, the MPs made a rare attempt to design language when they passed the Act of Interpretation, a law providing that when words denoting males appeared in statutes, they included women as well. The U. S. Congress passed a similar law in 1871. These he-means-she laws, drafted by men, some of whom actually supported women’s right to vote, prompted suffragists to argue that he in the voting laws gave women the vote. But English and American courts disagreed, ruling repeatedly that yes, he meant she when it came to obligations like paying taxes or punishments like going to jail. But when it came to privileges like voting, holding elected office, or entering a boys-club profession like law or medicine, he always meant “no women allowed.”

Women did get the vote—a 1918 law enfranchised English women who met certain property and residence requirements, and a 1928 law gave the vote to all women—as well as to men—regardless of their net worth. American women got the vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the politically-charged pronoun he remained a sore point. In 1922, the San Antonio Evening News shrugged off the suggestion that Edith Wilmans would not be allowed to serve as the first woman elected to the Texas state assembly because the law referred to Texas legislators as he. According to the News, the faux-generic he does even worse damage: “That’s nothing. The same pronoun stands between many women and their liberty.”

1922_he_womens_rights_San_Antonio_Evening_News

A. A. Milne may have floated the idea of nonbinary heesh to get away from the damage that gendered pronouns do. But he was no social radical, at least so far as grammar was concerned, and Milne had no problem fitting generic he into the primarily boys-club world of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and their companions in the Hundred Acre Wood.

no_girls_allowed_berenstain_bears

Another family of bears weighs in on the gender issue

 

Author: weboflanguage

Dennis Baron, a consulting linguist, has been writing about language, and the related issues of language, law, technology, gender, and education, for scholarly and popular audiences for four decades. He tweets @DrGrammar.