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by Mary Embree

Are you tired of having to use the word he for a person or animal of unspecified sex? Or the objective case him, or the possessive case his? As a writer, I certainly am. In my recent book, The Author’s Toolkit, I avoided always using the masculine word or using the more cumbersome phrases he or she, him or her, his or hers by alternating between the specific gender terms. For example, “If a publisher wants to know more about your book, he may ask to see a book proposal.” Or, “The agent should use her best efforts to sell your book.” I was speaking of publishers and agents in general, not any specific one. My other choice was to pluralize the people I was speaking of. “A writer may feel that she needs an agent” might become “Writers may feel that they need an agent.” I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that solution either. What I wanted was to have words that weren’t sex-specific.

Language is constantly changing and it isn’t only scholars, inventors, and scientists who create new words to define something that has never been in existence before. It is more often the poor and otherwise disenfranchised people who find new, colorful, and expressive ways to say things. Many of the words now in common use were coined by poets, musicians, and people who live in ghettoes. There is American English and English English, and the same word may mean different things or be pronounced differently by people from the two countries. The British term knock up means to wake up; rouse; call, as in “He knocked me up early this morning.” In the U.S. it is a slang expression meaning to make pregnant.

People who migrated to the United States from countries where a different language was spoken brought along with them words that the English speaking populace adopted. Slaves invented new words to define objects they had never seen before or to mask their meanings from their masters, and many of these words were picked up and used by the slaveholders’ children they cared for, eventually becoming a part of mainstream American language. The word jazz is an American word of uncertain origin. However, some think it originated in a West African language because the term arose out of the Black English of the American South in the 19th century. Before the word was applied to music it was a Black slang term for strenuous activity, particularly sexual intercourse.

So proposing some new words that will simplify our language and make it richer is nothing new. In fact, the idea of coining words that avoid a designation of sex, has been around for a long time. It’s just never caught on. Maybe now is the time.

This is what I propose. Laugh if you wish, but think about it. Instead of using the masculine he, him, or his, when the sex of the person or animal is undetermined, or the cumbersome he/she, him/her, his/hers, he or she, etc., I suggest the words heshe, herm, and hizzer. In place of him- or herself would be hermself.

Heshe is pronounced just like he/she. Hizzer is close to the pronunciation of his/hers. And herm is a combination of her and him. Herm is actually a word. It means a monument of a four-sided shaft tapered like the Washington Monument and bearing a head or bust at the top. A double herm has the head of a man and the head of a woman. One such herm has the head of Hermes, the ancient Greek messenger of the gods, and Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty. Hermaphrodite is the name of their son. A hermaphrodite is a human or animal having both male and female sexual organs. Thus, the word herm works on many different levels.

To hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, and homosexuals, it is often offensive to be referred to as one or the other sex. It is also confusing to someone who is writing about them. A person who has both sexes¾and there are more people like this than one would think¾truly is neither male nor female or, rather, is male and female. So it is inaccurate to refer to a hermaphrodite as him or her. By using a non-gender word, the challenge of using the right word is eliminated.

In cases where a specific sex or sexual orientation is known, we should continue to use he, she, her, him, his, and hers. I prefer chairman and chairwoman when the sex is known. I like the designation chairperson rather than chair, a term frequently used to avoid sex designation. To me, a chair is an inanimate object, not a person. I also prefer human over man to define Homo sapiens. And humankind over mankind. As a woman, I feel left out of the picture when it is said that man discovered how to harness fire, for example. As women were more likely to be the ones to do the cooking, even in ancient times, I believe a woman discovered it anyway.

For inanimate objects we have the word it. But I really find the word distasteful when it is used for a baby who is still in utero, such as, “Do you know its sex?” Wouldn’t it be better to say, “Do you know hizzer sex?”

To sum up my case for heshe, herm, hizzer, and hizzerself: the use of these words addresses a number of challenges, especially to writers, and maybe to politicians and others who wish not to offend anyone. By not using a masculine word when the sex of the person or animal referred to is undefined, it avoids the appearance of being a sexist. The new non-gender words would be more appropriate for those whose sex or sexual preferences are unknown. And we wouldn’t have to switch to the plural to avoid the gender designation.

I think new words that solve these issues should be incorporated into our language. Maybe the ones proposed here. Maybe some other ones. What do you think?

~ Mary Embree, SPAWN's Founder, is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant. Mary can be reached at



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