January 07, 2008


In response to this morning's post on the use of "yo" among Baltimore schoolchildren as a gender-neutral third-person singular human pronoun, Oliver Burkeman writes:

Not *every* media outlet got it right, however. I particularly liked the way the London Metro newspaper misinterpreted this story:

"...the phrase 'yo' has made a crossover from slang and has a new meaning — to describe a person who seems neither man nor woman."

The story in question is "Yo! The word we've needed for 200 years", Metro.co.uk, 1/2/2008, which begins:

Perhaps George Bush's off-the-cuff way to get his pal Tony Blair's attention had more meaning than first thought.

Because the phrase 'yo' has made a crossover from slang and has a new meaning — to describe a person who seems neither man nor woman.

It is a better pronoun than the offensive 'it', according to academics, and could even replace the correct — but awkward — 'his or her' in phrases such as: 'Everyone has his or her own opinion.'

The year is young, but I think this might turn out to be the stupidest piece of journalism committed in 2008. For sheer density of careless misunderstanding, it's going to be hard to beat those first three sentences.

But let the record show that I'm trying to implement my New Year's Resolutions, for 2006 as well as 2008. My original post described an interesting and relevant piece of linguistic research, with links to the published paper. And I went out of my way to say something positive about journalism: "the media, new and old, have gotten it just about right".

[For Americans and others who (like me) are not familiar with the Metro daily newspaper, it may be interesting to check out the Wikipedia article.]

[Fev from HeadsUp: The Blog writes:

Bit of a gamble, suggesting a candidate for Stupidest Story in the first week of an election year, but "The word we've need for 200 years" certainly does make an impressive case. Ack.

Well, I'll admit that my nomination was more of a rhetorical expression of astonishment than a sincere prediction. But we're talking about a monument of moronic genius here. First, the Metro writer and editor misunderstood lack of gender in a pronoun as lack of sexuality in the pronoun's referent. Then they decided to apply this misunderstanding to all uses of the interjection from which the curious pronominal yo seems to have derived; and to use this overapplication of a misunderstanding to insinuate that George Bush thinks that Tony Blair is sexless or perhaps effeminate. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 7, 2008 08:48 AM