I’m not sure what to say about this AP story, except to point out the remarkable sentence I’ve bolded, in which “they” has a singular referent:

BRANSON, Mo. – A Branson man has put a face to the anonymous references people often make to “they” by changing his name to just that: “They.” The former Andrew Wilson, a 43-year-old self-employed inventor, was granted legal permission last week by a circuit judge to change his name. It’s just They, no surname. He also has changed his driver’s license to reflect his new name.
They said he did it for humor to address the common reference to “they.” “‘They do this,’ or ‘They’re to blame for that.’ Who is this ‘they’ everyone talks about? ‘They’ accomplish such great things. Somebody had to take responsibility,” he said.
Now, his friends are getting used to his new name. “They call up and say, ‘Is They there?'”
He acknowledged the name could drive grammarians crazy.

Well, I guess his friend Craig Erickson said it best: “Not only is he making a statement about his name, but he’s messing with the entire English language.”
(Thanks to Bonnie for the tip!)


  1. Reminds me of the lady who named her son Mister so that everyone would have to show him some respect. Or at least he might often feel that way. This was in Mississippi, I heard back when I lived in Memphis. Or maybe this is just Southern folklore.

  2. A name such as the one mentioned by jean-pierre was often a symptom of the racism present in the United States. Black people were often addressed by their first names by White people in formal environments, whereas usually a white person would be addressed by his or her last name. Thus one sees the name Judge (or even, possibly, Mister) being given to Black children as a way to ensure that this casual racism would at least sound respectful.

  3. They accomplished something few people do in a lifetime: They changed the way people look at him and the world. And the rather small price that They will be called “eccentric”.
    I actually know a dude who’s name was Sir. It caused a friend of mine (Sir’s boss) no end of irritation to have to call up this underling and say things like “Good morning Sir”, “Yes sir”, “No Sir”, “See you tomorrow Sir”.
    A twist in the tale was that both Sir and my friend were Southerners, and my friend was caucasian, and Sir was black.
    Irritating, but, as Nathaniel says, empowering.

  4. Reminds me of old Russian stand-up comedy gig. Two guys meet on a stage. First guy introduces himself, than second nods and replies with “Avas”, which sounds at the same time as some vaguely Central Asian name(f.ex., I knew a Tartar who’s name was Abaz), and in Russian could be taken as a question “And yours?”
    So the dialog goes crescendo:
    – I’m Sergei.
    – Oh. *points to his chest* Avas.
    – Mine is Sergei, I said. What’s your name?
    – I’ve told you – Avas.
    – No you didn’t. I did.
    Etc, etc.

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    I wonder if every language has its equivalent of the “Who’s on first” routine.
    This year I attended a minor league baseball game. One of the players was from Taiwan and named “Hu”. It is with deepest regret that I must report he was the short stop.

  6. And, surely everyone knows by now Hu’s the leader of China.

  7. For those who don’t know the old Abbott & Costello routine: Who’s on First. It’s a classic.
    Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.
    Costello: Are you the manager?
    Abbott: Yes.
    Costello: You gonna be the coach too?
    Abbott: Yes.
    Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?
    Abbott: Well I should.
    Costello: Well then who’s on first?
    Abbott: Yes.
    Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
    Abbott: Who.
    Costello: The guy on first.
    Abbott: Who.
    Costello: The first baseman.
    Abbott: Who.

    And so on, i.t.d., i.t.p.

  8. If They has a girlfriend, she should change her name to Them. Then They could marry Them, and the minister could say “I now pronounce you subject and object.”

  9. He in English is Hoo (הוא) in Hebrew
    She in English is Hee (היא) in Hebrew
    Please come (when addressed to a female) is Bo’ee (בואי) in Hebrew
    So a supposedly common complaint of English speakers who learn Hebrew is that Hebrew is the language where “who is he, he is she, and when you call a girl you say boy”.

  10. Recall the Historia de Nemine, “History of Nemo”,
    a sermon composed by Radulfus Glaber, in which he interpretes, for example, the scriptural ‘nemo deut vidit'(noone saw God) to mean that Nemo is a certain person. See discussion by Bakhtin in Rabelais book (p. 413)

  11. Nemo is a certain person
    And “Notre Dame De Paris” as “Our dames in Paris”…

  12. And remember (and forgive!) Martin Amis who, in his recent book, the widely-panned “Yellow Dog”, wrote of the Chinese mistress He Zizhen and an intimate encounter of hers:
    “As she removed her clothes He caressed him with them, and then with what the clothes contained. He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He.”
    They should have an affair with He.

  13. Hat hath no words.

  14. This reminded me immediately of Gary Larson’s “So you’re the They in ‘That’s what they say’!”
    And jean-pierre’s comment brings to mind one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon characters, Senator Torvaldson, whose parents just liked the sound of ‘Senator.’

  15. So how will his friends and family handle the associated possessive issue? “Don’t drink that, that’s They’s beer”? “That’s Their beer” sounds just as awkward, despite being intriguingly offbeat.

  16. Yeah, I think it has to be “They’s.” They and They’s family and friends will get used to it quickly, but it’ll sure sound weird to others.

  17. Michael Farris says

    Did you see They yesterday?
    I think Fark had the best analysis (paraphrasing):
    “Man changes name to They. Us is pissed.”

  18. Why not pronounce it with an unvoiced ‘Th’, achieving two things: 1) avoiding most of the confusion and 2) They’ll (Þey’ll) be pissed.

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