A Very Queer Word of the Year for 2015

On Jan. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC, the American Dialect Society held the annual vote for the 2015 Word of the Year. The winner in a landslide vote was the pronoun 'they' used to refer to a single person, referred to as singular 'they'. As Ben Zimmer, Chair of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee, explained in a column in The Wall Street Journal in April 2015, unlike other gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun options like 'ze' and 'xe', singular 'they' is increasingly more accepted, even among language sticklers like copyeditors, in part because there is actually a long history of the third person plural pronoun being used to fill the need for a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English, and in part because of the demand for a gender neutral alternative to 'he' and 'she' from non-binary and gender fluid people.

If we accept that 'queer' is not just a synonym for LGBT, but a description of something that is revolutionary, something that challenges heteronormativity and the fixed nature of identities, then the anti-normative, non-binary, singular 'they' is a very queer word of the year indeed.

Singular 'they' has been around for a while, long before the innovative, gender fluid usage. Motivated Grammar points out that it can be found in the King James version of the Bible, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Oscar Wilde. If singular 'they' has been around for so long, though, then why would it be the 2015 Word of the Year? It has to do with momentum.

According to the American Dialect Society's website, nominations ideally are "widely used, new or newly popular, significant to the happening of 2015, indicative of public discourse and national preoccupations in 2015." A year and a half ago, Time magazine declared the transgender tipping point with the stunning June 2014 Laverne Cox cover. Today, acceptance of singular 'they' might just be at a tipping point, too. Singular 'they', for example, has just been accepted by the style guide of the Washington Post, which you can read about here, and many believe other usage arbiters will soon come around as well, most importantly the Associated Press Stylebook.

Part of the momentum, of course, is because the gender-neutral pronoun is so darn useful. Bill Walsh, a veteran Washington Post copy editor, writing about the decision to accept singular 'they' last month, explained that "simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we've done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?" Singular 'they' won the most useful category before moving on to win the overall title at the Word of the Year 2015 vote. Words are nominated in different categories, such as most useful, most creative, most unnecessary, or most and least likely to succeed.

While singular 'they' is revolutionary in terms of the gender binary and reflecting growing impact and visibility of trans*, non-binary, and genderqueer people, pronoun changes from plural to singular are nothing new. University of Michigan linguist Anne Curzan, for example, reminds us that English used to distinguish between thou (singular) and you (plural). More recently, there have been suggestions that 'y'all' might even have some singular usage, and the (seemingly redundant) 'all y'all' has been attested, although this is hotly debated, as Language Log explores.

In January 2013, 'marriage equality' narrowly lost the American Dialect Society Word of the Year 2012 vote, although this choice would have been significantly less queer than singular 'they', given that it describes conforming with a traditional, some would say sexist or misogynist, social institution, rather than overturning one. This year, singular 'they' beat out 'thanks, Obama' (a sarcastic phrase blaming the President for things, often minor, totally beyond his control), 'ammosexual' (from the most creative category; used to describe a "firearm enthusiast"), and 'ghost' as a verb (to describe leaving a relationship abruptly or without notice; voted most likely to succeed) for the Word of the Year honor.

So, what this all means is that you grammar sticklers out there have been put on notice. If singular 'they' is something you like to criticize, it has been around for a while and it is here to stay. On the other hand, if singular 'they' is the pronoun that you identify with, embrace, or simply use with relish, then your awesomely queer language practice has been recognized by language scholars not only as the most useful but also the most important word of 2015. Chances are, though, if you've been using singular 'they', you're too cool to care what a bunch of linguists think anyway.