The term “neopronoun” might sound foreign or like something that was just introduced, but neopronouns have actually been around since the mid-1800s, according to Bonikowski. For example, the neopronoun “thon” was a big one back in the day: “Thon”—short for “that one”—was introduced in 1858 and served as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. It was even added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1934 but removed in 1961.
While most of those neopronouns fell out of use or have not been in continuous use—like “hesher” and “ze”—Bonikowski notes that people have been trying to tinker with pronouns to reflect gender neutrality for centuries. “From the mid-1600s, English language style guides also promoted the use of ‘generic he’ to include any single person in the third person of any gender,” she explains. “During the 1970s and ‘80s, perhaps related to second-wave feminism, ‘generic she’ was used by some writers. Some people alternated between using ‘she’ and using ‘he,’ or consistently wrote out the longer phrase ‘he or she.’ Novel forms like ‘s/he’ were used in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
Throughout history, neopronouns were even coined and pushed by state legislatures to clarify that laws should apply to any individual (whereas “generic he” can be read as applying only to men), she continues. Some newspapers and universities have also promoted the use of neopronouns: As described in linguist Dennis Baron’s book What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She, the Sacramento Bee used “hir” for almost 30 years starting in the 1920s, and Mississippi even entertained a bill proposed in 1922 to adopt the pronouns “hesh/hiser/himer” that failed by only one vote.
More recently, the singular “they” has enjoyed a broader acceptance, even in edited, published writing. It’s used by many non-binary people, though it does still have other uses for an unspecified singular referent. Neopronouns, however, are now primarily used by non-binary people. And things have significantly improved when it comes to neopronoun inclusion, too: The Oxford English Dictionary added the neopronouns “ze” and “thon” in 2018 and “hir” and “zir” in 2019. In 2021, AI writing assistant Grammarly added support for neopronouns including xe/xem, ze/zir, ve/ver, and ney/nem. And social media sites like Facebook and Instagram allow users to pick from over 50 gender identities. Still, we have ways to go.