As you may know, speakers of Modern English are struggling to find a non-clunky and commonly accepted gender-neutral third person singular pronoun to replace the generic use of he or she.
The issue’s been periodically debated for decades, really, but lately the calls seem to have gained more urgency. There are many contenders, among them e / em / eir and ze / hir / hir.
Singular they may be gaining some ground, or at least growing in popularity here in the U.S. I’ve seen references to a long history of using they in that manner, but these references usually give no examples. (Maybe I just haven’t been reading the better articles? Also, one sometimes wonders why the British use of one has fallen out in other world Englishes.)
In any case, as an Anglo-Saxonist, it’s beyond my era and/or expertise. Nevertheless, I’m curious about any early examples. Here’s the oldest I’ve noticed so far, from a 1938 Hercule Poirot novel:
“Pilar said gravely: ‘If I had an enemy—if anyone hated me and I hated them—then I would cut my enemy’s throat like this….’”
– Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, p. 18 (original emphasis)
This example is great, because it’s clear and unquestionable. I’m pretty sure there are a few singular theys in Jane Austen’s novels, but I can’t remember where. Maybe it’s the perfect time for a re-read. 🙂
Christie, Agatha. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1938.
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