On January 7, 1912, a headline in the Chicago Tribune breathlessly announced, “Mrs. Ella Young Invents Pronoun . . . Makes Principals Gasp.” Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, told the Tribune she thought up what she called the “duo-personal” pronouns he’er, his’er, and him’er as she walked to a meeting with school principals. The story went viral. Then it unraveled.
Young told the Tribune,
I have simply solved a need that has been long impending. The English language is in need of a personal pronoun of the third person, singular number, that will indicate both sexes.
Superintendent Young used her pronouns throughout her remarks, and after the principals recovered from their shock and confusion, Young asked them to adopt heer, hiser, and himer and encourage their teachers to teach them to students.
Young’s gender-neutral pronouns made headlines as newspapers all over the country trumpeted her words, some praising the coinages, others condemning them. Young’s counterpart in St. Louis, Ben Blewett, rejected her inventions, telling the Post-Dispatch that he favored generic he. Blewett insisted, “generically we are all men.”
Even stronger opposition came from George Harvey, editor of Harper’s Weekly, who warned that any assault on masculine grammatical dominance signaled the end times for language:
When ‘man’ ceases to include women we shall cease to need a language, and won’t care any more about pronouns.
It turns out that all the attention focused on the pronoun revolution attributed to the first woman to lead Chicago’s schools was misplaced. Ella Flagg Young, who had just finished a term as president of the National Education Association and later earned her doctorate studying with John Dewey at the University of Chicago, did not think up heer, hiser, and himer after all. Rather, she co-opted someone else's invention.
Fred Pond, a Chicago insurance broker, had announced his coinage of he-er, his-er, and him-er in a letter to the Mansfield, Ohio, News-Journal on March 21, 1911, almost ten months before Young claimed the words as her own. Pond reasoned that even though the masculine pronoun was supposed to be generic, it was often awkward to use he for a woman. And he found singular they just wrong. Pond acknowledged that his words have neither beauty nor euphony, but at least he-er, his-er, and him-er, which he also labeled “strange” and even “ludicrous,” offered an escape from the troubling absence of a third-person singular pronoun that does not refer to gender.
Three days after the Tribune’s announcement drew national attention, Young conceded that “Fred L. Pond . . . is the inventor of the new pronoun.” According to stories in the Chicago Examiner (Jan. 10) and a local trade publication, the Chicago Live Stock World (Jan 17), Young admitted that Pond had written to her about his coinage several months earlier, and that she used the pronouns at the principals meeting to lighten the tone her speech. Perhaps fearing a charge of plagiarism along with criticism for tampering with English, Chicago’s head teacher said, “I want to be set right in this matter. I don’t want to be accused of stealing anybody’s thunder.”
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Smoking gun: Young tells the Chicago Examiner (above) and the Live Stock World (below) that she did not invent the pronouns after all.
But a month after that, Superintendent Young changed her story yet again to claim some of the credit for the new pronouns. Young told the New York Sun that she and Pond had co-authored the words:
Mr. Fred S. Pond of Chicago and myself had talked over the duo pronoun before I ever mentioned it. Mr. Pond and myself agreed there was need for a terse form of mentioning the third person without identifying that person by gender. . . . We developed the words.
It’s true that Pond’s initial announcement went largely unnoticed until Young publicized the words as her own. But we are now left with four versions of the birth of heer, hiser, and himer:
- Pond announces the pronouns in a letter to the editor on March, 21, 1911.
- Then in a story picked up by newspapers across the nation, Young claims credit for them in the Chicago Tribune on January 7, 1912.
- Three days later, on January 10, Young acknowledges to the Chicago Examiner that Pond coined the pronouns—but that news remains local, as does the report carried on January 17 by the Live Stock World.
- Finally, on February 11, Young revises her story once again, telling the New York Sun that she and Pond were joint authors of the pronoun project. That, too, draws little attention,
Two of these explanations are true: Pond did indeed coin the pronouns. One is a lie: Young did not think up the pronouns “in an instant” on the way to a meeting one cold Chicago day. And one bends the truth: Young may have been a pronoun publicist, but she was certainly not a co-author.
To be fair, many people proposed a gender-neutral pronoun that blended he with she. For example, Alice Heath, who called herself “a progressive teacher,” came up with hesh, hiser, and himer back in 1879, long before the compound occurred to either Pond or Young. But Young never explained the multiple positions she took on pronoun authorship, and she ended her Sun interview by suggesting that anyway, it’s not really important who came up with heer, hiser, or himer first, since neither she nor Pond could single-handedly reform the pronoun system. After all, language change must be a group effort, not something imposed from above. But instead of showcasing the new pronouns in her latest explanation, Young avoided them altogether, offering instead a single his or her, a generic himself, and a pair of hyperformal ones, all in quick succession. Young deployed every option except heer, hiser, and himer, though she also avoided singular they:
No person, no matter how exalted his or her station may be, is qualified to make a part of the language without the aid of others. . . . Since none of us is custom or law unto himself, what right has one to foist upon us some word? One can merely suggest.
Now the complicated story of heer, hiser, and himer gets yet another twist. The lexicographer Isaac Funk told the New York Times on January 12 that he didn’t like these new pronouns. Funk wasn’t against making up words, he just preferred the gender-neutral pronoun thon, coined by C. C. Converse much earlier, in 1858. But Funk grudgingly acknowledged that Young’s pronouns had some merit:
Like Wagner’s music, they are better than they sound.
Still, Funk thought that heer, hiser, and himer were not likely to succeed:
New words as a rule are very grudgingly admitted to good society.
Despite his reservations, Funk quickly admitted these untested new words to good society by putting them in the 1913 edition of Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, defining heer as
He or she, a suggested personal pronoun, third person, singular number, indicating a common gender.
Rather than crediting either Pond or Young as the coiner of the new pronouns, Funk documented heer, hiser, and himer with authorship claims from both. There’s this citation from a letter that Fred Pond sent to Funk dated February 8, 1912:
As illustrative of the elimination of our present awkwardness and often incorrect use of the English language, I give you the following: “Nearly, if not every writer, whoever heer may be, has a style of diction peculiarly hiser own (or hisern) which distinguishes himer from all others.”
And this one from the January 7 Chicago Tribune story that attributes the pronouns to Ella Flagg Young:
A principal should so conduct his’er school that all pupils are engaged in something that is profitable to him’er.
Dictionaries record words both new and old, both common and rare. But even though you could look up heer, hiser, and himer in your Funk and Wagnalls until the dictionary ceased publication in the 1950s, few people actually used them. Once in a while someone tried to revive Converse’s thon, and today gender-free coinages such as E (created in 1841), ze (1864), zie (1891) and hir (1920) are gaining some traction. But the most common gender-neutral, non-gendered, or nonbinary pronoun remains singular they, which has been the go-to pronoun for English speakers and writers in both formal and informal contexts since the fourteenth century.
If you'd like to learn more about the history of gender pronouns, pick up a copy of my new book, What's your pronoun? Beyond he and she, available from Liveright/W.W. Norton here, or wherever you buy or borrow books.