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Sam Smith and other gender-nonconforming people helped make ‘they’ Merriam-Webster’s 2019 word of the year

Sam Smith and other gender-nonconforming people helped make ‘they’ Merriam-Webster’s 2019 word of the year
[Photo: Stavrialena Gontzou/Unsplash]

Dictionary powerhouse Merriam-Webster has revealed its word of the year and it is . . . “they.”

Yeah, it’s a pretty boring, humdrum word, right? But surprisingly “they” lookups on merriam-webster.com increased a staggering 313% in 2019 over the following year. Though the word “they” has been around for over 600 years, in recent years it’s been put to new use, says Merriam-Webster:

More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary this past September.

Nonbinary they was also prominent in the news in 2019. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA) revealed in April during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act that her child is gender-nonconforming and uses they. Singer Sam Smith announced in September that they now use they and them as pronouns. And the American Psychological Association’s blog officially recommended that singular they be preferred in professional writing over “he or she” when the reference is to a person whose gender is unknown or to a person who prefers they. It is increasingly common to see they and them as a person’s preferred pronouns in Twitter bios, email signatures, and conference nametags.

“Pronouns are among the language’s most commonly used words, and like other common words (think ‘go,’ ‘do,’ and ‘have’) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users,” Emily Brewster, senior editor at Merriam-Webster, said in a press release. “But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the nonbinary use, we’ve seen searches for ‘they’ grow dramatically. In 2019 the increase in lookups for ‘they’ was so significant and sustained that it stood out from all the other top lookups when we went to analyze the data. People were clearly encountering this new use and turning to the dictionary for clarity and for usage guidance.”

The other tops lookups on merriam-webster.com for 2019 are:

  1. Quid pro quo
  2. Impeach
  3. Crawdad
  4. Egregious
  5. Clemency
  6. The
  7. Snitty
  8. Tergiversation
  9. Camp
  10. Exculpate

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