CULTURE

"They" Is Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year, So Stop Being a Dick About It

This is a big deal for recognizing nonbinary folks.

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"They" is Merriam-Webster's 2019 Word of the Year.

As a singular pronoun, "they" has exponentially risen in popularity over the last few years to refer to nonbinary people—folks who feel neither entirely male nor female. Other neutral pronouns like "ze" and "hir" can also be used, although "they/them" is most widely used among English-speaking communities.

Though so-called grammar purists have dismissed the use of the singular "they" on the basis of clarity, Merriam-Webster (as well as the Oxford English Dictionary) insists that it's totally OK. In September, Merriam-Webster officially added the singular "they," stating: "People have used singular 'they' to describe someone whose gender is unknown for a long time, but the nonbinary use of 'they' is relatively new."


According to Merriam-Webster, lookups for "they" increased by 313 percent in 2019 over the last year. Sure, everyone knows what "they" means in a pretty simple sense, but we still use dictionaries to look up different usages of words and how definitions change over time. A few events in the news this year likely spurred the sharp increase in lookups: Singer Sam Smith and Atypical star Brigette Lundy-Paine both announced they were using they/them pronouns. The American Psychological Association recommended that "writers should use the singular 'they' in two main cases: (a) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and (b) when referring to a specific, known person who uses 'they' as their pronoun." During a House Judiciary meeting in April, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal stated that her child is gender-nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns.

While there's still plenty of work left to do in recognizing and accepting trans and nonbinary folks, "they" being the Word of the Year is a huge start. Though recognizing gender identity outside of the male-female binary might seem a little odd to some—and our current administration continues to pretend like transgender people don't exist—it's crucial that they/them pronouns become normalized, and it's possible to adapt. If "they" can be one of Merriam-Webster's most looked-up words of the past 12 months, it appears that, thankfully, more and more people are getting on board.