In the past, “he” was considered the gender neutral third person pronoun. Now, most of us have come to realize this language comes from a time when women weren’t considered in the equation of life outside the home. The English language moved to using “he or she” as an equalizer of sorts. Comedian James Acaster made a point in his Netflix comedy special that I remember often. He said that, now, really the only people who use “he or she” are men. They do it with a pause, “he… or she!” as if forgetting women all together. He ends the segment by explaining that women use a word unfathomable to men — “they”.
Language is fascinating. It changes with time and cultural influences, leaving behind bits of history and the continuous need to edit. Words become hurtful or unnecessary because of the way they are used. Words are changed or added to make things better. Except some words, which are intended to make things more equal and end up just leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. The main culprit: “dudette”. The conversation around whether or not “dude” is gender neutral is a whole other debate. While blatantly feminizing the word, dudette creates a frilly, fragile feeling to it. This takes away from the meaning and ostracizes women into a realm of undudelyness.
Other words remain in a gray area. Is the word “actor” a truly gendered word? Should the use of “actress” fade out of existence? Words like “waitress” leave ample room to misgender people. While the -ess suffix has become less commonly used, it still is very much something that should be thought about.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is the word “heroine”. It’s derived from ancient Greek and not a creation in a similar vein to “shero’’ or “herstory”, both plays on the fact that “hero” and “history” both contain the pronouns he and him. However, it is pronounced almost identically to a drug with a sinister history and effects. When searching for the history of the word heroine, the first Wikipedia article was about heroin. While for some, words like shero or heroine could create empowerment, they make me feel slightly uneasy. Who decided that the word “hero” was masculine in English? Heroes and heroines become separate, instead of one united group of problem solvers.
Words are also created as a way to include the excluded. Like I mentioned above, shero and herstory were created to add women into the equation. The words womxn and folx have also been implemented, in order to include nonbinary people. However, they remain awkward at best. Folks is already gender neutral, so changing the “s” to an “x” is just weird. Additionally, women is a gendered word for a reason. Womxn very much gives the vibes of spaces for “women and nonbinary people” even though they’re really just talking about people assigned female at birth.
Language is complicated. Words serve a place in time, but times change. Maybe words and our use of them should as well.