02:24:52 pm on
Monday 22 Jul 2024

Rising to the Challenge
David Simmonds


The loonie, Canada’s favourite one-dollar coin, marks its 30th anniversary this year. The toonie, Canada’s favourite two-dollar coin, marked its 20th anniversary in 2016. Although the coins came without any kind of officially suggested nickname, in each case a public consensus quickly formed around the moniker.

The loonie and toonie experience came to mind when I was thinking about the question of whether we have an adequate vocabulary to address issues relating to gender orientation. In particular, there has been a great public wailing and gnashing of teeth over two issues with the adequacy of the words “he/she,” “him/her,” “his/her,” “his/hers” and “himself/herself.”

The first issue has been around for a while.

Is there is a cultural bias toward the masculine over the feminine; many think so. For example, take the word “mankind”: it suggests masculinity defines our species. “Humankind” works as well as does “mankind,” perhaps better.

Mostly, we have done a good job of de-genderising nouns. We no longer have “actresses,” for instance; we just have actors. Where we still have some room to improve is in the smooth flow of the language. For example, if you want to describe what a person does if he or she doesn’t drive, you can answer that “he or she rides his or her bicycle” and be technically correct, but from a literary standpoint it falls flat. You will have the same predicament if you use agglomerated words like “he/she rides his/her bicycle,” particularly if you deliver them orally.

The use of the existing range of gender-neutral alternative phrases does not improve matters. You can say that “a person rides their bicycle,” but it is clankingly awkward and blurs the distinction between singular and plural. Nor is it any better to say of a person that “they ride their bicycle”; “they rides their bicycle” or “they ride their bicycles; even “they rides their bicycles” doesn’t work. “One rides one’s bicycle” sounds upper class twitish and is too abstract. “It rides its bicycle” is plain stupid. Perhaps the best tool in the toolkit may be to use random or alternative genders: “he rides a bicycle, while she walks” and so on. Many authors, though, apologetically introduce their work with a reference to how the selection of gender identifying pronouns has been made, essentially acknowledging the deficits in our language.

The second issue has pushed its way to the front of the lineup much more recently. Existing language, it is claimed, fails to include those whose gender identification is not embraced by either of the common masculine or feminine terms, however well balanced they may be. What tricks do we have left in the cupboard to address that concern? The least-worst solution, I suggested above, just plain doesn’t work in this case and none of the other alternatives come out any better.

There aren't enough words in English to solve our problem.

I must conclude there just aren’t enough words in the English language to address our two issues. Time is a-wasting. A University of Toronto professor is in all kinds of trouble with his administration and protesters for refusing to move beyond traditional male and female gender identifiers, in the face of a policy permitting directing respect for gender self-identification. Other-gendered rights will be the subject of forthcoming human rights legislation. What can we do?

There are comprehensive suggestions of new words circulating in wordland. The American mathematician Michael Spivak, in 1983, came up with the following,

For “he/she” say “e,” pronounced “ee”

For “him/her” say “em,” pronounced ‘m”

For “his/her” say “eir,” pronounced “air”

For “his/hers” say “eirs,” pronounced “airs”

For “himself/herself,” say “emself,” pronounced “m-self.”

The result is that we would be able to say “e rides eir bicycle emself because it belongs to em: it’s eirs” and be free of any gender baggage. How much linguistic baggage we would end up carrying would be for others to measure.

The alternative language, the solution, has been around for thirty years.

If this alternative language has been sitting around for over 30 years, longer than the loonie, doesn’t it just confirm that if it were going to fly, people would have adopted it by now? I’m inclined to the opposite view. When the loonie and toonie came in, there was a necessity to come up with a slang name for the coins and people sucked it up and got on with the job ferociously fast.

The names stuck because the impetus came from the bottom up. Once people generally determine that developing gender-neutral language has become a necessity, they can quickly rise to the challenge. We’re on the cusp of that.


Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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