They’re building a new Starbucks down the street. They’re about to raise interest rates. They’re planning a new freeway through my back yard. They’re thinking of putting in a new sewer line. They’re coming out with more efficient electric cars. They’re bringing the prices of laptops down. They’re raising the cost of gasoline.
But who exactly are they? The use of they to mean any person, business, or governmental body proposing a direction, making a decision, or acting, is so commonplace that I’d be surprised to find one person who claimed he or she never indulged in it.
When did it start? How would you track when we began to use they in this sense? Except perhaps for letters to the editor, archived newspapers wouldn’t provide reliable answers, as even today newspapers or news sites clearly state that “Starbucks is opening a new store at …”, or “The Department of Sanitation proposes new sewer lines for …” No news source uses they in this sense of “those in control”–at least, that I know of. It seems editors expect reporters to find out exactly who is doing what.
So … this topic would make a fine English graduate program thesis, one which I would never undertake myself and therefore hand off to the first interested English graduate student. I’m even having trouble finding out if anyone has already done this project–because they is so commonplace!
The only research I’ve made is to note how The Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition, 1971) describes one use of they: “As indefinite pronoun : People in general; any persons, not including the speaker … Much used colloquially and dialectally instead of the passive voice.” The OED cites uses in this sense in years 1415 and 1565.
But this doesn’t explain our use of they to mean “omniscient powers in control.” They is oral shorthand for some frequently nameless authority, often but not always feared or scorned. I’m struck by the OED’s wording, “any persons, not including the speaker,” which can sound somewhat paranoid in this context.
There may be a possibility of tracing early use of the authority they through novels, songs, poems, films, letters to the editor, and other places where vernacular or colloquial expressions are recorded. Possibly start with 1800. Search microfilmed newspapers to find such a use. Search Google Books. Visit libraries holding books from the 1800’s. Go back or forward fifty years at a time until you find your first hit, then narrow the timeframe.
Unfortunately, they also has quite a few other uses! Making up search strings, or just wading through old microfilm, will be quite a task.
What does it mean? Why do we continually fall back on They’re offering specials at Target when we mean “Target is offering specials”? Is it psychic laziness? An aversion to precision, to the responsibility to know something about what’s going on around us? I was also struck by the OED’s phrase: “Much used colloquially and dialectally instead of the passive voice.”
Is it the fear that they control everything? That they are the unknown and thus the enemy? And not only is there nothing we can do about it, we’re too afraid even to use the passive voice?
Is there an active voice for this sort of thing? That is, precisely describing the events of daily life around us?
copyright 2010 by Michael D. Smith