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Op-Ed

Just ask Bob

January 6, 2023

Pardon me, but the next person who asks me what my pronouns are is liable to get a saucy answer.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Maybe it’s the Covid plague, or the years of isolation, or lifelong fear of rejection, but I’ve been reading the Miss Lonelyhearts columns in the newspapers. You know, the ones that never begin: “Dear Bob,” …

No, it’s usually: “Dear (Some Woman)” … as if women held a secret balm for our existential anguish, rather than being a contributing factor to it. Not that I find anything wrong, or upsetting, about women. *

You know what I mean: the fact that we’re alive, and that we presumably prefer that to the alternative.

Now, I do not read lonelyhearts columns with a sneer on my face, or rolling my eyes toward the sky from the tin cup I use as a heart. No, I read them because here is a (presumably) human being, baring his or her or its or thon’s ** heart to millions of strangers, knowing the confessions will be published in a newspaper and preserved online, presumably forever (so long as that lasts).

Why would anyone write a letter like that? to a stranger?

I guess it’s because they feel they have nowhere else to turn. Loneliness.

As I’ve made perfectly clear, twice now, I am not knocking the people who write these sad letters, or the women thons who answer them.

I confess that I read these letters with a morbid fascination. But I’ll tell you what else: The only one of these columnists I trust is Miss Manners. Because politeness matters. 

I do not believe Miss Manners *** would ever offer an answer to a letter that asked: “Should I marry this guy?” No, Miss Manners would suggest how you might refuse to answer the question — politely.

I wish a Major TV Network would make Miss Manners its top political correspondent. Breaches of etiquette? Man, Miss Manners would be all over Congress like white on rice.

I would cancel volleyball practice to watch Miss Manners report from a campaign trail, night after night. Or from the National Republican Committee’s annual celebration of its Sacrifice of a Woman for an Unborn Child in Texas. Or Florida. Whatever.

If — god forbid — someone should ask me to write a Lonelyhearts column, I would tackle only the questions that I make up and send to myself. As I can’t help but wonder how many of our “working” Miss Lonelyhearts do.

Not that I am prejudiced, or presuming “male privilege” over our doughty Lonelyhearts correspondents. But how about a little sexual equality here, editors at The Associated Press, the L.A. Times, Spanker’s Digest, and other syndicates? Could you give me a shot? 

I’ve had all my other shots.

Here, gratis, is my first Q&A. You understand what Q&A means, right, cynical overlords? Do I have to spell it out for you?

Q: Dear Bob,

Should we all hire herding dogs — or, hell, any dogs at all — to teach our children how to behave?

  • Miriam, Hooter’s Corners, Pa.

A: Excellent question, Miriam. Yes.

Q: Dear Bob,

Did the Centers for Disease Control actually recommend that keeping your clothes on while having sex is a good way to help prevent the spread of monkeypox?

  • Federico Z., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

A: Yes, it did, Federico, and thanks for asking. What the CDC neglected to point out, however, is that abiding by this guideline makes it possible to have sex even at busy intersections.

Q: Dear Bob,

I am a 34-year-old librarian in a remote, rural district near the Georgia-Carolina line, where laws are loosely enforced. I am 5 foot 6 inches tall, weigh 128 lbs., and disputing fine points of grammar excites me, in a physical way. Could I come crash at your place for a while? My pronoun is thon.

  • Thon, Traveler’s Rest, Ga.

A: Dear Thon,

Being as you use a gender-neutral pronoun, it’s hard for me to say whether … O, what the hell; come on over.

Footnotes, masquerading as erudition 

* I am lying here.

** Thon was a real word, once, invented to plug the shameful and notorious hiatus in the English language, which has no gender-neutral, single, third-person pronoun. Thon was accepted as a word for 27 years (1934-1961) by the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. **** I encourage you (thon) to read Merriam-Webster’s own history of thon, and the many other pointless words invented to deal with this nonproblem, including hem, ons, e, hesh, heesh, tey, per, nim, talis, and … but enough. I prefer any of these nonwords, especially thon, to today’s “their” and “them” (as pseudo-singular). Why? Because “their” and “them” are plural. OK? May we consider the subject closed? Maybe it’s my nine years of teaching English in public high schools, a century ago, that impels me to say this, but my pronouns are “Siddown” and “Shaddup.” It’s thon or no one for me. 

*** (Miss Manners’ real name is Judith Martin. Dear Judith — Ms. Martin: Will you marry me?)

**** (Funk and Wagnalls, I need hardly remind you, accepted thon as an acceptable neoterism in its Dictionary Supplement of 1903.)

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