The fascinating history of they/them pronouns: from William the Werewolf to Jane Austen

Gender neutral pronouns, such as they/them, have become increasingly popular in recent years as more and more people are identifying as gender neutral, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.

However, as right-wing panic about LGBTQ+ “ideology” spreads, and comments suggest that “pronouns” are some kind of new phenomenon, it might be worth looking at where they/them pronouns actually come from.

In English, the words “they” and “them” have always been used as a plural pronoun – to refer to a group of a people or an organisation or company. However, both can be used as a singular pronoun as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, and dictionary.com all recognise the singular “they” as being grammatically correct. The AP style guide – often used by journalists or academics – also allows for the usage of “they” as a singular pronoun for people who don’t identify as either male or female.

What people may not know is that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun also dates back to the 14th century, meaning it is by no means a new thing.

The French poem “William the Werewolf”, which is estimated to have been written and published around 1375, used “they” as a singular pronoun, while Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales also features “they”. It’s also used in other famous literary works like Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1599 and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813.

This tweet by @Swilua shows the instance in the text where “Þei” is used.

Charles Dickens and W.H Auden, as well as other writers from the 19th century, also regularly used the singular “they” within their writings, and it’s also worth noting that in the 1850s, many variations of gender neutral pronouns such as “xe” or “ze” appeared in newspapers.

Early medical texts in the 1600s also referred to individuals outside of the gender binary as they/them while pronouns like “thon” and “hir” have also been traced back to early modern texts, but were not widely used past the 1880s.

Dr Emma Moore, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sheffield, previously told Radio 1 Newsbeat that using “they” as a singular pronoun in the past was also used when you didn’t know the person’s gender.

She explained that people would use “they” if they weren’t sure, saying: “You could say that somebody was say, a teacher, but you didn’t know whether that teacher was male or female.”

The use of they/them pronouns to refer to a singular person therefore isn’t a fad, but rather something that has existed for centuries. Although it has now been repurposed slightly to refer to gender neutral and non-binary people, it is definitively (and historically) a grammatically correct way to describe a person whose gender either isn’t known – or falls outside the gender binary.

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