I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.
This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.
Themself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.
Though non-standard, or at best less than fully standard, themself is slowly growing in popularity and status; it is used, for example, in Canadian law. There’s no overriding reason to reject it; it’s just a convention we’ve lost, and could regain. Grammatically, themself is no worse than singular they, which is no worse than singular you, which is now (but was not always) judged beyond reproach.
I’ve developed a soft spot for themself, and like seeing it in the wild.* A contemporary example comes courtesy of @jprmercado on Twitter, who shared an image from the new Marvel comic Young Avengers #15. The line: “Now, the one of us who sacrifices themself… the one who stops being human for a good cause… it’s me.” (Writer: Kieron Gillen; artist: Joe Quinones. Bless you, Twitter.)
It also occurs in China Miéville’s Kraken (a novel I described in a recent post about gender-neutral henchpersons as a darkly comic cephalopod-cult apocalypse romp). Here’s the relevant passage:
The women behind the reception desk stared at her in alarm. “You have to help me,” Marge said. She made herself gabble. “No, listen. Someone here calls themself floodbrother, yeah online. Listen, you have to get them a message.”
It’s an interesting decision. The customary choice would be themselves, or himself because it’s reasonable to provisionally infer male gender from floodbrother (cf. singular they in reference to the Buddha). But Miéville used themself, and why not. It’s easier to say than themselves, especially before another ‘f’; it’s in keeping with Kraken’s shifting selves operating in multiple planes; and its progressiveness fits the writer’s ambition and invention.
Outside fiction themself is creeping up too. A search on Guardian.co.uk returns quite a few hits – several in the ‘Soulmates’ dating section, owing to the frequency of reflexive reference (I’m someone who…; looking for someone who…). It pops up less often in the NYT and BBC, and about once a year on IrishTimes.com, but one of these is from someone who pays close attention to language usage: Lucy Kellaway.
In her original FT article, Kellaway says an authority on elevator etiquette deems it rude to press the call button if someone is already waiting: “To do so shows either that you don’t understand how lifts work, or that you consider the other person too dumb to have pressed the button themself.” Themselves would be the default here, but I’m glad Kellaway went with the unfashionable word. It could do with high-profile adopters.
Be they fictional, factual, or self-narrated, the worlds we deal with are packed with uncertain reference and identities that are complex, mutable, and ultimately self-defined. Peeves be damned: generic themself, with its contained multitudes, can only rise in value.
Another prominent use, this time by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:
It’s one thing for a publisher or retailer to send out copies of your books in which words are changed around without your permission. It’s another thing altogether for the reader themself to decide to read their legally acquired books in such a way as to change the text.
* My fondness for it increased when a commenter on my earlier post called it “stupid, wrong, ungraceful, and unnecessary” and said it would “mutilate the language”. No kidding.