she as a gender-neutral pronoun

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 4 15:52:48 UTC 2011

In computer science there is a convention dating back to the 1970s
that reflects an interest in gender-balance. The custom occurs in the
field of computational cryptography.

When defining a two-person protocol a researcher might use routine
labels such as "A" and "B" for the participants. But for decades in
the field of cryptography it has been common to use the names "Alice"
and "Bob". This naturally leads to the extensive use of the pronouns
"he" and "she" in the protocol description.

Other female names such as "Eve" for eavesdropper are used when
defining and analyzing protocols. Wikipedia has a list of character
names based on Bruce Schneier's book Applied Cryptography.

One of the foundational papers in computational cryptography was
written in 1977 by Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman. The
paper introduced the RSA cryptosystem, and it used the names Alice and
Bob. An article on the Network World website claims that the Alice-Bob
convention began with the RSA paper. Here is an excerpt containing
comments from Ron Rivest:

Security's inseparable couple
Network World
February 07, 2005 12:04 AM ET

RSA co-founder Rivest, who is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) professor, says he came up with Alice and Bob to be able to use
"A" and "B" for notation, and that by having one male and one female,
the pronouns "he" and "she" could be used in descriptions. Rivest says
it is possible that Alice came to mind because he is something of an
Alice in Wonderland buff.

Never did he expect the names to take on lives of their own.

"Nor did I imagine that our proposed cryptosystem would be so widely
used," he says.


On Sun, Jan 2, 2011 at 10:13 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: she as a gender-neutral pronoun
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 9:07 AM -0500 1/2/11, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>>I've seen this many times in lit-crit prose over the past, say, fifteen
>>years, chiefly in the works of female writers, who, it may be assumed, find
>>"she" the more "natural" pronoun.
>>Male writers also use it, and I've seen it alternated with "he," more or
>>less at random, though in different sentences. That seems to be quite
> It could also be that when it's alternated we don't notice the
> gender-neutral "he" and just register the gender-neutral "she".  As
> far as disciplines go, there's been a tendency over the last couple
> of decades in much linguistic semantics/pragmatics and philosophy of
> language work to use the convention that the arbitrary speaker is
> "she" and the arbitrary hearer "he".
> LH
>>On Sun, Jan 2, 2011 at 6:31 AM, Michael Newman
>><michael.newman at>wrote:
>>>  ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>>  -----------------------
>>>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>>  Poster:       Michael Newman <michael.newman at QC.CUNY.EDU>
>>>  Subject:      Re: she as a gender-neutral pronoun
>>>  I think somewhere I called that use of she "the affirmative action =
>>>  pronoun." I think some people didn't think that was very funny.
>>>  There are legitimate semantic reasons to prefer a singular pronoun in =
>>>  some contexts where the sex of the referent is logically sex-indefiite, =
>>>  in particular to create a more personal rhetorical effect. You can =
>>>  better imagine a personification of "a solitary reader" "the critic" =
>>>  etc. with a singular pronoun than with they However, in these cases, the =
>>>  writers are simply trying to not violate a ridiculous prescriptive rule. =
>>>  In doing so, they lose the ability to modulate between more generic and =
>>>  more individual interpretations.  Hopefully, that norm will go the way =
>>>  of the prohibition against sentential hopefully.=20
>>>  Michael Newman
>>>  Associate Professor of Linguistics
>>>  Queens College/CUNY
>>>  michael.newman at
>>>  On Jan 2, 2011, at 4:07 AM, Paul Frank wrote:
>>>  > ---------------------- Information from the mail header =
>>>  -----------------------
>>>  > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>>  > Poster:       Paul Frank <paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU>
>>>  > Subject:      she as a gender-neutral pronoun
>>>  > =
>>>  --------------------------------------------------------------------------=
>>>  -----
>>>  >=20
>>>  > Several years ago, I started noticing the use in academic prose of
>>>  > "she" as a gender-neutral pronoun to avoid the supposedly sexist "he"
>>>  > and the =
>>>  no-matter-how-much-descriptivists-say-it's-okay-somewhat-problematic
>>>  > "they." My unscientific impression is that this use of "she" is
>>>  > gradually becoming de rigueur in academic prose, at least in the
>>>  > humanities.
>>>  >=20
>>>  > The New York Review of Books recently asked "six accomplished critics
>>>  > to explain what it is they do." Note their use of the pronoun "she":
>>>  >=20
>>>  > Stephen Burn: A solitary reader, brooding over an obscure contemporary
>>>  > novel, or slowly puzzling out a page of =93Finnegans Wake,=94 is =
>>>  suddenly
>>>  > not so solitary. Amid the network of networks there is always another
>>>  > reader, an improvised community into which she can merge and make
>>>  > visible her invented self.
>>>  >=20
>>>  > Katie Roiphe: Now, maybe more than ever, in a cultural desert
>>>  > characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is
>>>  > important for the critic to write gracefully. If she is going to
>>>  > separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the
>>>  > brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped =97 if she =
>>>  is
>>>  > going to ferret out what is lazy and merely fashionable, if she is
>>>  > going to hold writers to the standards they have set for themselves in
>>>  > their best work, if she is going to be the ideal reader and in so
>>  > > doing prove that the ideal reader exists =97 then the critic has one
>>>  > important function: to write well.
>>>  >=20
>>>  > Adam Kirsch: Of course, this is an ideal. Most of the time, depending
>>>  > on the kind of piece she is writing, the critic also has other
>>>  > responsibilities. She is a journalist: a review is, in part, a news
>>>  > story about a new book and why it matters. She is a consumer advocate,
>>>  > giving the reader enough information to decide whether to buy the
>>>  > book. At times =97 as we saw recently in the discussion of Jonathan
>>>  > Franzen=92s =93Freedom=94 =97 she is a social commentator, trying to =
>>>  determine
>>>  > what the success (or failure) of a particular book says about America
>>>  > at large, how the nation lives or thinks or imagines.
>>>  >=20
>>>  > I know, "they" has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun
>>>  > since the 15th century if not before, but many writers still try to
>>>  > avoid this use of "they" and in some circles "she" now appears to be a
>>>  > standard gender-neutral pronoun, though even in academic prose it
>>>  > obviously still refers to women more often than to men.
>>>  >=20
>>>  > It would be interesting to know in which disciplines this use of "she"
>>>  > is more prevalent. It's not surprising that it's common in lit-crit
>>>  > circles.
>>>  >=20
>>>  > Paul
>>>  >=20
>>>  > Paul Frank
>>>  > Translator
>>>  > Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
>>>  > Espace de l'Europe 16
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>>>  > mobile +41 79 957 5318
>>>  > paulfrank at
>>>  > paulfrank at
>>>  >=20
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>>"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
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