My little sister has really big news – like, first-grandbaby-in-the-family level news – but she has made me promise not to say anything about it until she tells the rest of the extended family. So guess what? I’m not going to be an uncle later this year. I’m not looking forward to all the joys of a newborn baby without any of the responsibility. And I’m definitely not already excited about the post-infant stages when the little bundle becomes an actual functioning human being capable of learning all kinds of words and habits that will drive its mother bananas.
If I were approaching unclehood – which, officially speaking, I am not – I would be ready to embrace my duty as a loving, conscientious, extremely part-time bad influence. Parents help with homework and go to church and pass on their own customized brand of repressions. Uncles don’t do any of that. Uncles, at least in my case, are socially sanctioned agents of weaponizing generosity and affection against our own siblings.
Just as one hypothetical example: the moment I learn I am going to be an uncle, I will immediately take to the internet to find an adult-human-sized sock monkey that I can give my hypothetical new family member. Then I will save this sock monkey until the child is old enough to form attachments and express desires. I will also save this sock monkey until my sister brings her child to visit via airplane.
And when I discover that 6-foot-tall sock monkeys also come with anatomically inaccurate gargantuan bananas, because all things are possible in the Information Age, I will weep. For I must then decide between ordering these sock monkeys in bulk or buying a new one each year to gift my darling nibling, as well as whether I should ship one to my sister’s church for Easter service.
VOCABULARY ALERT: “Nibling” is a gender-neutral term for the offspring of your sibling. It is not to be confused with the gerund “nibbling,” nor with the Nibelungs, a race of Scandinavian dwarves who oversee a hoard of gold and other treasures, nor their ruler, Nibelung, king of Nibelheim, land of mist.
Before the insensitive among you decry nibling as another instance of identity-sensitivity ruining our country, I want to tell you that the word is not new. It originated in the early 1950s and is absolutely the most un-sexist thing to come from that time. Sure, I could write “niece or nephew” every time I mention the kid who is not yet officially being born this year, but that gets wordy and clunky, and ultimately its usage might distract from the original point of this column, whatever that was.
Speaking of words, I recently met someone who uses the pronoun “they/them/their.” This was the first time I’ve knowingly met someone like them. I admire anyone who can match their linguistics to their truest self. I support them fully, and I will strive to respect the pronouns they identify with by using them (the pronouns, not the person) as little as possible.
My confusion is my problem, not theirs. I have made enough of a living with copyediting work to buy a couple days’ worth of groceries. Plus, I speaking English a lot. My brain is pretty hard-wired to catch a pronoun/antecedent disagreement. Yet my brain is cool with using the singular “they” to mean “some person.” We English speakers have used it as a genderless pronoun for centuries, because the use of “one” sounds so odd to one’s ears.
But it’s a new exercise for my brain to call a specific person “they.” I messed it up about 14 times in the conversation where I learned about this person’s pronouns. I was terrified to meet them, fearing I might call them “her” or “him” or “Shiva” or any other word that popped in my head. And I had so many questions. Do they use singular verbs? Or plural ones? And when I’m talking in person with them, should I use the singular “you” or the plural “you?”
So I practiced at home before meeting them. I wrote out example sentences, like, “They remembered that time their uncle gave them a hermit crab on summer vacation, and their mom had to shepherd this plastic to-go box with sand and a freaking HERMIT CRAB through airport security.” That exercise really helped me to have a nice conversation with them wherein I used the appropriate form of “you” without blunder.
And you know what? I’m glad I can adapt my way of being to make another person feel safe, seen and accepted. If only we could all be so bold in deciding who we are. I just hope my nibling experiences the same freedom to decide who to be. She. He. They. A sock monkey collector and hermit-crab farmer. I may be biased, but I’m pulling for the latter.