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What is the origin of the use by Texans of "them" to mean one person?

English Language & Usage Asked by Isabel Archer on December 15, 2020

I have always wondered about a use of the pronoun “them” that is characteristic of many Texans, and would like to know if it has been documented by linguists and, perhaps, had its origins explained.

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and spent my first 17 years there. This use of “them” always sounded strange to me, even though I was a native, perhaps because it wasn’t something I heard in my family. I did hear it, however, from many neighborhood children and my school friends, as well as from several of my parents’ friends.

Here are a couple of examples of this use of “them”:

  1. “I just saw Bob and them.”
  2. “How are Bob and them?”

Of course #2 sounds strange, because the nominative case of the pronoun, “they”, is the correct choice for “How are…”

But this is not what makes the expression so different.

“Them”, as in both cases here, is often (not always) used in Texas to refer to one person, irrespective of gender. For example:

“I just saw Bob and them.” “Are they coming?” “Yes, Bob is coming at 5:00, and Jane will be along about an hour later.”

Apparently Texans aren’t the only people to use “them” in these and other like expressions. I have searched on the Internet, and the search turned up plenty of sites that refer to the expression “How’s mom and them” or close variants:

Your Dictionary – mom-and-them, a Southern expression that means “family”;
Urban Dictionary – your mom and the rest of your family;
Wiktionary – a Southern US expression that means “family”;
Many New Orleans sites, including NewOrleans.com – “ya mom’n’em”, meaning your immediate family.

So evidently, the use of the expression goes far beyond Texas in the southern United States. But nowhere on the Internet can I find a source that documents this particular type of use of “them” to describe only one person, irrespective of gender. (Also, in Texas, it does not always apply to family.)

Is there an etymology of this usage? Has anyone seen it documented anywhere?

2 Answers

The construction that you describe sounds like an associative plural, rather than a use of the word "them" to mean one person. I'm basing this on the fact that if "them" meant one person here, "mom and them" would mean "mom and one other person," but it sounds like it actually means mom and one or more than one additional related people.

That is, it seems that despite containing the conjunction "and", the construction refers to a plural "them" that includes the named person.

Some languages have a dedicated construction for expressing this kind of idea; some languages apparently express it by just putting the word for "they/them" (without "and") after the person's name, as in Afrikaans Pa-hulle "Dad-them". ("Associative DPs", Hans den Besten, page 14)

Searching online for "and them" and "associative plural", I found the following sources that seem to discuss this construction:

This (along with similar constructions) is reported to be a feature of a wide range of English varieties, not just one particular area or dialect. E.g. "Appalachian English: morphology and syntax", by Michael B. Montgomery, 2008, has a section 10.5 "Associative plurals" that says

The phrases and all, and them (often reduced to an' 'em), and and those each mean "and the rest, and others" and are used usually after a singular noun to include associated people (especially family members) or things.

  • [...]
  • b. I have a picture of my dad and them working their own road.
  • c. Helen and those were there.

The language Frisian, closely related to English, is said to have "Heit-en-hjar" literally "Dad-and-them" as a way to refer to Dad's family, Dad and mom, or Dad and one other person (den Besten page 16).

Answered by herisson on December 15, 2020

The construct is used widely in Scotland in speech, although I do not see it used in journalism or in the written prose of formally educated people. “... and them” means something like “... and a group of associated people, be they relatives or friends”. With that meaning, the gender, singularity, number or plurality of the associated group is not defined. Indeed, it may not even be known by the speaker.

I have noticed an early use in the works of the Scots poet Robert Burns, writing in the late 1700s.

Here is a verse from Epitaph For Mr. William Michie

We'll live a' our days,
And them that comes behin',
Let them do the like,
An' spend the gear they win.
Hey, ca' thro', &c.

Answered by Anton on December 15, 2020

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