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Rob Slane: When Jill turns into Jack words fail us


I came across a new word the other day. Themself. I chanced upon it quite by accident after happening to see a story about someone called Jack Monroe who had apparently been awarded a sum of money in a court case against Katie Hopkins. The case itself intrigued me about as much as statistics on 17th century wool production, but what caught my eye was that Jack didn’t appear to look very much like I’d expect a Jack to look. A Jill perhaps, but decidedly very unJackish.

I must admit I’d never heard of Jack Monroe before (one of the very great benefits of not having a television, alongside not having to give any money to the BBC, is remaining blissfully ignorant of the lives of most celebrities). Yet I was intrigued enough about Jack to head over to Wikipedia to find out more. Once there, I soon regretted not having a couple of paracetamol to hand, since the entry was quite obviously intended to induce headaches in its readers. For instance, there was this:

“Monroe, who was assigned female at birth, identifies as non-binary transgender and goes by singular they pronouns, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she.’”

So Jack was “assigned” female at birth? Not was female at birth, but assigned. Presumably the assigning was done by a midwife who thought she was pronouncing on the basis of objective observation, rather than simply assigning something still to be confirmed. Yet it now turns out that she was apparently so dim and backward that she thought that having “Bits Type-A” rather than “Bits Type-B” between your legs was a rather neat way of checking whether Jack – or Melissa as she once was – was male or female.

Thankfully, due to our advances in technology and science and all the things that make us much superior to every previous generation under the sun, we now know that determining whether someone is male or female on the basis of the Bits is just plain wrong. We must instead leave it up to each person to exercise their choice as to whether the Bits really ought to be there or whether they should be removed and changed for other Bits. A bit like fixing up a car. Only then can we really know.

In fact, because of the great leaps in our knowledge in recent years, we can now confidently say that midwives, or midpartners as they are about to be called, have been wrong on this business for millennia. There they’ve been, arrogantly and authoritatively assigning sex on the basis of nothing more than objective observation, whereas it was obvious all along that it is entirely a matter of choice. Jack’s parents should have given her what for:

“What do you mean ‘it’s a girl’? How dare you bring your antiquated objective observations into this and gender-assign our child on the basis of her/his/their/its lack of Dangly Bits?”

Later in the Wikipedia entry we get this:

“During this period, Monroe also had a brief relationship with a close male friend, which resulted in a son.”

Oh dear, oh dear, Wikipedia. How very antiquated and – dare I say it – gender stereotypical. What makes you think it was a male friend? What makes you think it was a son? How could you know? Can’t have anything to do with the presence of certain Bits, can it?

But all this is nothing compared to the assault on the English language that we get later on:

“On leaving the fire service, Monroe adopted a short haircut and took the forename ‘Jack’. They began identifying to friends and family as a lesbian woman, and began a long-term relationship with a woman; the relationship ended shortly after Monroe told their partner they were considering a mastectomy. Monroe was still careful at this point to downplay any suggestions of gender ambiguity, and in an interview in February 2014 described themself as a ‘lefty, liberal, lezzer cook who had reassured their parents that they identified as female.”

They began? Monroe told their partner? They were considering? What are she talking about (I have assigned Wikipedia as a she of course)? Are she talking about more than one persons here? Have she gone mad? There you see. If Wikipedia can mangle the English language up beyond all recognition, I myselves can do it if we put our mind to it!

But the icing on the cake is that word “themself”. Microsoft Word won’t let me type it in. Every time I write it and click the space bar it transmogrifies to “themselves”. I try again but Word won’t have it. When I finally put the cursor back over the word, delete the letters “ves” and replace them with “f”, it makes its disapproval abundantly clear by putting a squiggly red line underneath. It’s as if Word is rejecting the term as a gross distortion of the English language and pleading with me not to put such nonsense into it, else it will soon be having to deal with words such as ourself, himselves and herselves. Or is the explanation more sinister? Could it be that Word itself is fundamentally transphobic?

Actually, the word themself was once in usage in the early 1500s, but had pretty much died out by the end of the century. However, the use of it back then was simply as a singular form of themselves. For instance, “Anyone would find themself thinking similar thoughts” rather than “Anyone would find themselves thinking similar thoughts.That kind of makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, though, is when we are asked to talk about someone who is biologically female (clue: she gave birth to a son) as if she were biologically neither one thing or the other.

We could try out the language of using singular “they” pronouns by adapting a famous work of literature to see how we get on:

“Oh! my dear Mr Bennet,” as they entered the room, “we have had a most delightful evening, a most excellent ball. I wish you had been there. Jane was so admired, nothing could be like it. Everybody said how well they looked; and Bingley thought them quite beautiful, and danced with them twice. Only think of that my dear; they actually danced with them twice; and they were the only creature in the room that they asked a second time. First of all, they asked Charlotte Lucas. I was so vexed to see them stand up with them; but, however, they did not admire them at all: indeed, nobody can, you know; and they seemed quite struck with Jane as they were going down the dance. So, they enquired who they were, and got introduced, and asked them for the two next.”

In the next scene in the book, Mr Bennet loses his patience with Mrs Bennet. In this new non-binary transgender third-person plural personal pronoun adaptation, he’d be more likely to reach for the paracetamol and contact a psychiatrist.

(Image: Ted Eyton)

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Rob Slane
Rob Slane
Rob is married to Alina, and they live with their six children in Salisbury. He blogs regularly at

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