During the June 13, 1954, episode of American television's What's My Line, the panel was blindfolded and had to identify the guests, Les Paul and Mary Ford, by asking a series of questions that the guests would answer. The panel didn't know from the outset that there was more than one guest. This conversation ensued (from timestamp 18:55 of this video):

Panel: Are you in television?

Ms. Ford: Kinda.

Panel: "Kind of." Does that mean that you're in television by way of movies?

Emcee: … it means they're in television — they appear on television screens, etc. — without any specific reference to time, date, etc.… It just means that you asked "Are they in television?"; the answer to that would be "Yes".…

Panel: Well, is this, um — hm, I think there's more than one person there.

Emcee: Well, if you do, all you have to do is ask the question.

Panel: Is there more than one person?

Ms. Ford: Yes.

Now, I would've thought the emcee had given it completely away: that, in 1954, referring to the guests as "they" would make it clear as day that there were multiple guests. Yet the panel asked. So am I wrong: was singular "they" at least somewhat acceptable (at least when trying deliberately to conceal the sex of a person)? Or am I right that "they" was only plural at that time, and the panel was merely being extra-cautious (or polite in pretending the emcee hadn't flubbed)?

  • Don't think most would have picked that up as a reference to plural people, but it is always. – user22542 Feb 13 at 23:44
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    I don't remember, from my childhood (which began in 1951) whether 'they' was ever singular in those days. It would be interesting if anyone else remembers as it will be a difficult thing to research. – Nigel J Feb 14 at 0:22
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    See A Brief History of Singuar They, which, unfortunately does not explicitly talk about the prevalence of singular they in the 1950s, but which implies that it might have been fairly common, but frowned upon. – ab2 Feb 14 at 1:20

In the context of this program, the voices used in the answers already given had already made the panel suspect there was more than one person. The word 'they", used in this way in 1954, would reinforce the idea.

One of the panel still asked if there was more than one. They were likely pretty sure already. Under the game rules, asking a question when you were fairly certain the answer would be "yes" was not much of a risk. Only "no" answers counted against the panel. So checking to be certain made sense.

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