READING                From Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master --- that’s all.”

Alice was too puzzled to say anything, so Humpty Dumpty began again.

“They’ve a temper, some of them, particularly verbs:  they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them!  Impenetrability!  That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased.  “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”


Early last summer I returned from a meeting with ministerial colleagues, somewhat perplexed.  We had spent a few days together, in workshops, in casual conversation, in a formal business meeting, and in worship.  Josh Pawelek, the UU minister in Manchester, CT, stood before us at the closing assembly.                  He said, in part:

Many of you reported having a wonderful experience in Tuesday morning’s worship. But some reported the opposite; and I’d like to name what I’ve heard and offer an apology. First, “One More Step” and “Guide My Feet,” while they are beloved songs in the current UU canon, are also songs in which people who don’t walk or run or step cannot locate themselves. Second, references in music and spoken word to ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers,’ though very common in our language, leave no room for gender queer people and anyone who doesn’t identify with one side or the other of the gender binary. 

I know of two ways to address these concerns. First, adapt the language. We don’t have to walk or run, we can move, we can roll. Many of us may be sisters or brothers, but we are also siblings. Second, if there’s a compelling reason to use the original language, then in the very least, acknowledge that the language is not inclusive and state the compelling reason.

In a number of instances on Tuesday we pursued neither of these options. To all those who felt left out or invisible, I offer a heart-felt apology. I also caution us that this apology is not about the feelings of any particular individual, and it is definitely not about political correctness. This is an acknowledgement that we missed the mark. This is about who we are, how we are together, and how we fulfill the promise of our theology and our principles.

In subsequent conversations and exchanges, further points were raised:  The now ubiquitous yellow-shirted “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign was criticized for using the word “standing,” which, it was pointed out, excludes those who cannot stand.  Josh wrote a follow-up message, in which he said:

Clearly there is a problem with ableism in our public presentation. Public statements, music, stories and metaphors that perpetuate ableism have been hurtful….

As with any oppression, this ableism likely runs deeper than our public presentation. I remain grateful to all those who are willing to call it to our attention, and I am deeply sorry that such calling is still necessary.

I came home perplexed.  I thought: “Running,” “race,” and “standing” (for something) are metaphors.  Common, everyday metaphors.  Words that have done a lot of work, paid or not, saying many different things, for a very long time.  Brooks and politicians and clocks all run.  Boats and cars race, without legs.  As UUs we are quite practiced at altering hymn lyrics.  How many more would we need to change?  I couldn’t stop myself.  I thumbed through the hymnal, looking for hymns that would need to be avoided, or revised.

Was I being cranky?  Or was I missing something?  If so, what was I missing?

“Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 4.4, King James’ Version 1611

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration of Independence,1776

“One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”  Neil Armstrong, as he stepped onto the surface of the moon, July 1967.

“We seem most our true selves when we are deeply involved in relations with other selves.  … There can be no peace of mind until … a man establishes an authentic sense of community with his fellows.  …He must share in a common understanding of life with others….  This is the level at which community begins.”  Howard Thurman (late 1940s) from Meditations of the Heart

In the beginning of my 1990s edition of Meditations of the Heart is the following disclaimer:  “We realize that inclusive language is noticeably absent in Howard Thurman’s writings.  As gifted and prophetic as he was, Howard Thurman was also a product of his times.  …Regardless,… the substance of his work is inclusive.  His life and theology were inclusive, and if he were writing today his language would more accurately reflect his worldview.”[iii]

I love reading Howard Thurman.  When I feel like I need to be better at simultaneous translation, I try to push past that feeling.  And when I use his words in a service, I often edit them, changing “man” to “people,” and he/him to they/them or we/us.

And there are hundreds of English translations of the Bible.  Some of the newer ones change “man” to “one,” as in “One does not live by bread alone.”

Why?  What’s wrong with “man” and “he” as terms that encompass women and gender-fluid folk?  It’s a metaphor.  It’s a convention that goes back – how far?

Maybe not quite as far as you might think.  There seems to be common agreement that the first person who actively promoted the use of male pronouns to represent all genders was, ironically, a woman.  She was an 18th century grammarian named Ann Fisher, who wrote a very influential and widely used A New Grammar published in the 1740s. 

Ann Fisher was not a conventional 18th century woman.  She thought women should be educated, and ran a school for working class women before her marriage.  She partnered with her husband, Thomas Slack, in running a publishing company, while raising nine daughters.  She used her own name on her many books and other publications.  And she pioneered a way of thinking about and teaching English grammar that was based on common usage, rather than on Latin.  So you might find it ironic that it was Ann Fisher who championed the use of he, him and his to stand in for both male and female.

New York Times contributors Patricia O’Conner and Steward Kellerman wrote:

How, you might ask, did people refer to an anybody before (Ann Fisher came along)? This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural.  Writers were comfortable using they with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because it suggested a sexless plural.

Apparently, Ann Fisher couldn’t get her mind around the idea of using
they as a singular.” [iv]

It wasn’t until the 1970s that common usage began to tend away from “he” as the universal pronoun.  Arguments continue, in various quarters.  But most of us now expect that writers and speakers will be gender-inclusive.  The question remains:  how?

John McWhorter, in The New Republic a few years ago, wrote:

‘Each student was talking about how hard their homework was.’

As natural as it may feel to pop out with sentences like the one above, we know it’s wrong. We know that they and their are plural, so they can’t possibly refer back to each student, which is singular. But let me assure you that the rule has never made any more sense than throwing rice at a bride. It’s got to go.

McWhorter gives examples of past usage of a singular they:  in Shakespeare, and in Thackeray.  He goes on:

Experiments prove what we would suspect of using he as a generic: When people are asked to read a sentence with a supposedly gender-neutral he, they almost always assume that a man is being referred to. One alternative, putting women last in a he or she formulation, is sexist—as is, by definition, she or he. Switching between he and she looks studied, he / she is unpronounceable, and compromise neologisms like hesh never catch on.[v]

They, argues McWhorter, is the way to go.

Is he missing something?  What is he missing?

Our youth begin their meetings by introducing themselves.  They say their name, and their preferred pronouns.  “My name is Janet, and I use she, her, hers.”  “My name is Adrian.  They, them.”

Our youth have no trouble with this.  People who do not identify with either side of the gender binary, and people who listen to and support them, actively promote it.

If you are having trouble deciding where to locate yourself in these grammatical and semantic conundra, I invite you to be curious, and to ask yourself what you might be missing.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master --- that’s all.”

Back to the hymns.  I did a highly unscientific, non-exhaustive comparative study of three of our hymnals this week – the red, 1937 Hymns of the Spirit, the blue, 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life, and the gray, 1991 Singing the Living Tradition.  If you have been a Unitarian, or a Unitarian Universalist, for a long time, you probably remember all three.

The biggest difference between red and blue (1937 vs 1964) is theology.  I don’t know why, but I was surprised.  It’s hard to find a red hymn that doesn’t evoke or praise or petition God the Father.  Many of the red hymns do not appear, in any form, in blue.  There is more overlap between blue (1964) and gray (1991).  The biggest difference, in the hymns that are common to both, is the gray’s attention to gender-inclusive language. 

“Brothers” become “pilgrims.”  “Turn back, oh man, foreswear thy foolish ways,” becomes “Turn back, turn back, foreswear…..”  and  “Once to every man and nation” is now “Once to every soul and nation.”

There are many more examples.  What was common parlance in 1964 is not common parlance, and is not acceptable, today.  I and many women like me cannot easily or comfortably locate ourselves in phrases like “once to every man and nation.” 

So – was I right in being cranky about “running,” and “racing,” and “standing on the side of love?”  A little over 50% of the population is female.  Is it possible that male pronouns, and words like brother, man, and men no longer represent both male and female human beings in most public discourse today because of numbers – because enough women finally raised their voices loud enough to be heard, and because men began to listen?

A much smaller percentage of people are mobility-impaired, or visually impaired, or otherwise “less able.”  If they complain that they hymns we choose make some of them feel excluded, are they really just being intolerant of metaphor?  Is it for me to dismiss what they say about their experience in worship because they aren’t numerous enough to stand out?  Or make a loud noise? 

“We seem most our true and best selves when we are deeply involved in relations with other selves.  … There can be no peace of mind until … we establish an authentic sense of community with one another.  …We must share in a common understanding of life with other people….  This is the level at which community begins.” 

That’s Howard Thurman, again, adapted for gender inclusiveness.  I’ve decided that I just might have been missing something, in my response to the controversy over ableist language in our hymns.  We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Sometimes that means we need to listen, when a person tells us that our words or actions make them feel excluded, devalued, or unseen.  And then we need to decide how we will respond.


The beautiful hymn “Morning, So Fair to See,” is one that appears in all three of our hymnals.  The red and blue versions feature “men” and “brothers,” who have been replaced by “pilgrims” in the gray. 

I invite you to make one further substitution today, in the third line of the first verse.  Instead of “pilgrims, we march along,” let’s try “pilgrims, we carry on.”  We can see how it feels. 



[ii] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, Beacon Press, copyright 1953 and 1981, page 122.

[iii] Editor’s Note to Thurman.

[iv] Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, “All Purpose Pronoun,” NY Times Magazine, July 21, 2009

[v] John McWhorter, “The Royal They:  Fighting Against the Tyranny of Pronouns,” The New Republic, April 30, 2013.