Who Are They?

If it's in the Times style section, you know it's not news anymore. I put up a fight, but I'm resigned now to the singular "they," and I make a real effort to use it though I still find it very awkward. It's the same feeling to a lesser degree that I had when I was studying Spanish recently. For someone who prides himself on his skill using English with subtlety and precision, struggling to say something as simple as, "I like blue chairs," is humbling.

But my resistance is not solely about my ego. Besides the practical confusion it invites (wait, how many people are you talking about?) -- to my ears the singular "they" is, like "roommate" and "friend" the lexicon of the closet.

I don't hear it used this way any more (which is not to say that it isn't -- we get so used to the idea that everything is different and better now we forget that for lots of people in, say, Mississippi, it's not exactly safe yet to be out), but the people I remember using the non-specific singular "they" were older homosexuals who wanted to refer to their life partners but weren't sure if they were safe coming out to the person they were talking to. As in:

"You should bring your roommate to the party."

"I'd love to but I think they're busy that night."

Just one of the aches and pains of aging: words -- awesome, hobo, they -- gather new meaning, and no one cares anymore about the old one.