Ou – Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Three things have come together for me over the last year or so.

  • As I started writing about children and parenting, I found myself regularly referring to a single child whose sex and/or gender is unknown, such as the future baby in a pregnancy post, or when writing generally about a hypothetical reader’s child.
  • I have become more conscious of the issues facing transgender people and people not on the gender binary, which makes me want to do a lot less assuming when it comes to people’s gender.
  • My feminist consciousness has grown, and when I’m talking about professional people I haven’t met yet, like a new doctor or a mechanic, I don’t want to accidentally enforce gender stereotypes with my language by assigning that person a gendered pronoun.

For all of these reasons, I decided it was time to take the plunge and pick a gender-neutral pronoun.

I chose “ou”.

I first used the word “ou” in my first Baby Bellyaching post. Here’s the explanation I included:

It’s hard to talk about babies without using pronouns, and since you don’t know the gender of the child in question, the available pronouns really bug the shit out of me. So, I’m finally jumping off the cliff and picking a gender-neutral pronoun. I’ve decided to go with ou, which has the benefit of not being completely made up. Look it up if you like, and expect to see more of it around here.

While I suggested that people look it up, there’s not that much information available about it. I first got the idea from s.e. smith at this ain’t livin’. Ou prefers “ou” as a pronoun for ouself, and I learned from ou that “ou” is an archaic English word. The idea of using an existing English word makes the most sense to me, even if it’s centuries out of date. I don’t like any of the recently invented gender-neutral pronouns, so “ou” was a welcome idea.

The Wikipedia article on “she” turns up this information:

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular “ou”: “‘Ou will’ expresses either he will, she will, or it will.”

In some of my early posts using this word, I have used “ou” as you might use he or she and “ou’s” as you might use his or hers. However, I have recently begun to read s.e. smith on G+, and there, ou offers this sentence: “Ou took ou car to the carwash, and amazed ouself by finding enough quarters for the machine wedged into the seatback cushion.” Possessive “ou” is still “ou”.

Another question you might have is how to pronounce it. I don’t have an authoritative answer on that. I looked up some Middle English pronunciation guides and settled on the “oo” sound like in “you”. I am open to correction if you have a source for a different pronunciation. I think because of the sound similarity to the word “you”, “ou” slips easily into my spoken words as well. It’s not jarring to the ears the way some invented pronouns are.

Every time I write a sentence that will contain “ou”, I hesitate. My writing would be more easily understood and more readily accepted by the most readers if I stuck to words and ideas that were already familiar. I have the urge to change the wording and make it less weird. But this idea is important. Not all people have a gender. Not everyone fits into the two common genders. I don’t know everyone’s gender. Gender should not be such a this-way-or-that-way-and-no-other-option kind of thing. I believe that ideas begin with language and are rooted in language. If I want something different from the way my culture treats gender, the first thing I can do is change my language.


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