Every Being for Itself
Those sentences were a part of the voiceover introduction to tonight’s episode of the hit CBS TV show “Survivor.” They illustrate the kind of linguistic trouble we get ourselves into when we try to be politically correct in our speech.
Before addressing linguistic issues, let me provide some background for anyone who may have been shipwrecked on a tropical island for the past few weeks. “Survivor” is one of the new “reality” TV shows starring ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, in this case, dumped onto a godforsaken island to fend, more or less, for themselves. Two groups of eight people (“tribes”) try to eke out an existence, compete against one another for creature comforts, and survive periodic “tribal councils,” where mandatory elections are held to select a member to be summarily exiled from the island. Being given the boot could be a relief were it not for the $1,000,000 prize to be collected by the last survivor.
Years ago, the announcer would surely have said
I don’t know how far back the phrase “every man for himself” goes, but it is of long standing. As used here, the announcer would be saying that the castaways find themselves in a common situation, the every-man-for-himself situation. Arguably, the men and women on the show are not being referred to at all here. This is perhaps a too-subtle argument for the language police among us, who are likely to see some slight to women in the sentence.
Without bending the language unduly, the sentence could have been
This abandons the stock phrase and particularizes the words to the situation at hand. Since the islanders are both male and female, the sex-neutral “everyone” is appropriate. According to traditional grammatical rules, “himself” must be used to parallel the singular “everyone” and because, lacking unambiguous indication that the persons referred to are exclusively female, a masculine pronoun is required. Unfortunately, this construction will clearly get us into trouble. Feminists have tried to convince us that use of the masculine in cases of ambiguity is not merely a neutral convention, but is instead a means of masculine oppression of the feminine majority. (At the very least, it is simply unfair.) It is hard to deny the existence of a grain of truth in this view, though the reality is that both men and women were willing to accept the convention as merely a convention for a very long time. Our innocence having been compromised, however, it is wise to try to avoid sexism, real or not.
Alas, those who decry the masculine-by-default rule have not offered very good alternatives, at least not to those possessed of both good judgment and taste. The obvious fix is
This does not come trippingly off the tongue, nor does the somewhat improved version
But, ultimately, it is everyone for him- or herself.
For the more radical feminist, this becomes
But, ultimately, it is everyone for her- or himself.
which sounds odd.
The “Survivor” folks did what most people do to avoid giving social offense, namely resign themselves giving linguistic offense with
But, ultimately, it is everyone for themselves.
The most commonly discussed problem with this usage is that “everyone” is singular—a fact that often surprises elementary school children—but “themselves,” which is intended to have the same referent, is plural. Whereas this mismatch is often largely a matter of grammatical niceties, in this instance, a serious misunderstanding is possible. “Themselves” really could refer to all the members of the group, a reading that would reverse the actual meaning intended! What other “them-”—an unambiguous plural—could be meant? Perhaps an argument could be constructed that this reading is excluded by the context. If “But,” is dropped from the sentence, I believe this is a very difficult argument to sustain.
One is tempted to invent a needed word here—admittedly an option not available to “Survivor,” but something interesting to contemplate. The prospects are not good for such neologisms, of course. “Ms.” has become common because it solved a real social problem, but when was the last time you used “waitron” for “waitress or waiter”? Substituting “themself” for “themselves” shows some promise as a sex-neutral singular, but, as mentioned earlier, “them-” is hard to accept as a singular. One could combine “his” and “her” into “hirself” or “hemself,” but, in the spoken language at least, either of these portmanteau words would be difficult to distinguish from its sex-specific cousins.
So, if the producers of “Survivor” had wanted a coherent sentence that was not offensive, what could they have used? Perhaps
But, ultimately, it is everyone for everyone’s self.
would have done the job. This has the correct meaning and cannot be called sexist, but it does have a tortured quality about it. The sentence suggest another alternative, however, namely
But, ultimately, it is everyone for oneself.
I doubt any native English speaker would actually utter this sentence spontaneously, but it does have an attractive symmetry, in spite of a certain cold detachment. I think the real reason it sounds more natural (read “familiar”) than we think it should is that “everyone for oneself” has the same number of syllables and the same rhythm as “every man for himself.” Imagine that!
— LED, 6/22/2000
Note: On July 7, 2000, a promo for “Survivor” included this sentence: “And, now, it’s every man and every woman for themselves.” Good grief!