Things That Matter

Merriam-Webster’s Word Of The Year Is A Sign Of Growing Interest In More Inclusive Terms

Merriam-Webster dictionary announced that “they” is the 2019 word of the year. Not only have searches for the word exponentially increased, but its ubiquity is related to strides made by the gender-nonconforming community. The popularity of “they” has continued as more people have begun to identify as nonbinary. 

Some nonbinary people prefer to be addressed by pronouns that aren’t gender-specific and as Merriam-Webster notes, unlike other languages, English does not have a gender-neutral singular pronoun. 

While some, including celebrities like singer Sam Smith or Younger actor Nico Tortorella, prefer to be addressed as “they,” other nonbinary folks may choose “she” or “he” like Batwoman actress Ruby Rose or Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness. 

Searches for “they” increased by 313% from 2018 to 2019

“Our Word of the Year for 2019 is they. It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term—a personal pronoun—can rise to the top of our data. Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year,” Merriam-Webster wrote in its release

While critics of “they” insist that making the small linguistic adjustment for nonbinary people is too much to ask of society, Merrian-Webster says “they” has been used as an apt gender-neutral singular pronoun in the English language for 600 years. 

“English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years,” the statement said. 

Merriam-Webster added the definition of “they” as it relates to nonbinary folks last September after noticing its use became “common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers.”

The dictionary also included other notable nods to the nonbinary community. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal revealed that her child is gender-nonconforming and prefers to use “they” during a House Judiciary Committee hearing about the Equality Act in April. Moreover, the American Psychological Association now recommends using “they” if it is a patient’s preference or if their gender is unspecified. 

“It is increasingly common to see they and them as a person’s pronouns in Twitter bios, email signatures, and conference nametags,” the dictionary stated. 

The issue with “they”: a struggle for grammatical clarity and cultural acceptance. 

For a long time The Associated Press, the institution that establishes grammar and style standards for journalists, reluctantly decided to include “they” in 2017 following a barrage of criticism. 

“We stress that it’s usually possible to write around that,” AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke said in 2017. “But we offer new advice for two reasons: recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”

The AP feared that readers wouldn’t be able to comprehend literature that used “they” as a singular. 

“The whole issue is difficult. We worked very hard to come up with a solution that makes sense,” Froke said. “Clarity is the top priority. Our concern was the readers out there. Many don’t understand that they can be used for a singular person.”

The organization changed the standards so that writers must clarify with context when they are using the word to refer to a  singular person. Other proponents of “they” believe that not reserving the word for those who identify most with it can be an act of malice. 

“For many trans/GNC people, gender is an important part of their identity and actively avoiding the act of gendering manifests as another form of violence—a violence that trans/GNC people have been fighting against throughout the long history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and two-spirit (LGBTQIA2S) experience,” a trio of non-binary scientists wrote in Scientific American

More people are identifying as nonbinary so get used to “they.” 

Van Ness said he innately knew he was nonbinary he just didn’t have the word to identify himself with. It is unsurprising that as the identity becomes a part of the public discourse and more nonbinary people become visible in media, more nonbinary folks will come out.  

In 2018, the journal Pediatrics reported that 3 percent of Minnesota teens did not identify as a “boy” or a “girl” which was much higher than they had expected. 

“I just didn’t know what the name was. I’ve been wearing heels and wearing makeup and wearing skirts and stuff for a minute, honey. I just like didn’t know that that meant — that I had a title,” Van Ness, whose pronouns are “he” and “him” told Out. 

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