Whither POSSLQ?

by Dianne Loyet

At some point in the 1970s, I heard Charles Osgood declaim this very 20th-century parody of Marlowe’s great love poem:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will some new pleasures prove

Of golden sands and crystal brooks

With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

If you would be my POSSLQ.

You live with me, and I with you,

And you will be my POSSLQ.

I’ll be your friend and so much more;

That’s what a POSSLQ is for.

And everything we will confess;

Yes, even to the IRS.

Some day on what we both may earn,

Perhaps we’ll file a joint return.

You’ll share my pad, my taxes, joint;

You’ll share my life – up to a point!

And that you’ll be so glad to do,

Because you’ll be my POSSLQ.

As you can tell from the context of the poem, “POSSLQ” is an acronym for “persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters.” It was created at a time when the way of life in the US was changing, and the language was trying to keep up. Specifically, “living together” without benefit of marriage was increasingly common, and it was no longer shrouded in shame and secrecy. For this new reality, people needed new expressions.

POSSLQU was established by the US Census Bureau, but never caught on and is no longer used. Some people saw no need for a new expression; they referred to people in a romantic relationship who were living together as boyfriend or girlfriend.  Ultimately a consensus settled on “partner.” Although partner was initially used only to refer to people who were not married, it is now defined as “either member of a married couple or of an established unmarried couple,” according to Google’s English Dictionary Powered by Oxford Languages.

As in the 1970s, our culture is again going through a change that requires new ways of speaking. Our decade’s challenge is to find ways of addressing people without any reference to gender a growing number of people do not want gender to be a factor in every interaction.

In professional situations it has become fairly common to share one’s preferred third person pronouns in a signature file or during the introductory portions of meetings. Some people also wear pins or badges which symbolically or textually show their pronoun preference.

Unfortunately, because the primary conduit of information is the workplace, those of us outside the workforce are missing out. Even within the workforce, transmission is uneven. Workers in customer service may be trained to use gender-free respectful forms of address, or to recognize pronoun pins, but their coworkers might not be.

An additional problem is that the expression of pronoun preference does not necessarily convey everything that the wearer would like us to know. Some people (like myself) are quite literal, so a pronoun pin tells them only what pronouns the wearer wants to be referred to in the third person. 

Initially pronoun preferences were only “she/her,” “he/him,” or “they/them.” Now some are choosing multiple options such as, “she/her they/them.” This choice is ambiguous. Does it mean they sometimes prefer one, at other times the other? Or does it mean either is always OK?

Visually conveying pronoun preference is a good start, but we need to do more. It would be helpful if there were a civil, unambiguous expression that meant, “Please don’t gender me” that everyone could understand. It would also be helpful if there were a consensus about how to politely ask someone how they would like to be referred to.

In addition to creating new expressions, there are some expressions which may need to be eliminated or replaced. The most obvious of these are “sir/ma’am”, and “mister/missus/miss”. In some regions in the US, the notion of giving up “sir/ma’am” may be a non-starter. In many parts of the country, however, “sir” and “ma’am” are not used as often, and politeness could be expressed in other ways. “Excuse me,” could be just as polite as, “Excuse me, sir,” and “I’m sorry to bother you,” is just as polite as “I’m sorry to bother you ma’am.” In place of “mister/missus/miss,” some are using “Mx,” pronounced “mix.” In many situations, gender neutral titles such as “doctor,” or “coach” will work. One could also simply say, “Friend.”

There’s no telling whether any of the gender-free expressions being tried out now will stick. Attempts to establish gender-free third person pronouns go back centuries, but the number of people announcing their pronouns reached a critical mass about 2015. It is now widespread although far from universal.  In a decade we may find that Mx is as much of a linguistic dodo as POSSLQ and significant other, but language changes because people decide to speak in a new way. So, the only way we will establish gender-free expressions is choosing some that resonate with us and trying them out.