A tiny word with immense versatility is Merriam-Webster’s 2019 word of the year.
“They,” a gender-neutral personal pronoun that can be used as a singular term, was selected this year after the dictionary website noted look-ups had surged 313 per cent compared to 2018. The word currently has three definitions on the site, including one that refers to “a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”
The English language does not have a singular pronoun for words like “everyone” or “someone,” which makes “they” the default option for people who don’t adhere to masculine or feminine pronouns.
Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, noted that the word is a “surprising” choice.
“It’s a word we all know and love,” he said. “So many people were talking about this word.”
Gender identity, or one’s view of their own self, entered the mainstream this year with non-binary people and their allies changing the conversation.
It’s not uncommon to see “they/them/their” pronouns in email signatures, Twitter bios and LinkedIn profiles as a way to self-identify preferred pronouns.
The uptick in searches for the term started last January, not long after fashion model Oslo Grace, a 21-year-old non-binary transgendered Californian, appeared in fashion shows wearing both men’s and women’s clothing.
British pop singer Sam Smith also came out as non-binary this year, asking to be identified as “they” or “them.” Smith’s announcement also led to an increase in searches on Merriam-Webster’s site.
“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” the 27-year-old artist wrote on Instagram in September.
In September, Merriam-Webster added a new definition to its online dictionary to reflect use of “they” as relating to a person whose gender identity is non-binary.
“There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language,” the dictionary website wrote online.
Sokolowski told the The Associated Press the word is “here to stay.”
The runner-ups for the accolade this year were “quid pro quo,” “crawdad,” “exculpate” and others.
Here are Merriam-Webster’s previous words of the year:
- 2018: justice
- 2017: feminism
- 2016: surreal
- 2015: -ism
- 2014: culture
With files from The Associated Press