The team at Merriam-Webster Dictionary has declared the personal pronoun “they” the 2019 Word of the Year.
In the last year, there was reportedly a 313 per cent increase in searches of the word “they” on the company’s online dictionary.
“I have to say it’s surprising to me,” said Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer and Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.
“It’s a word we all know and love. So many people were talking about this word.”
Sokolowski and his team monitor spikes in searches. “They” got an early start last January with the celebrated arrival of transgender non-binary model Oslo Grace on top fashion runways. They have since walked in both men’s and women’s shows around the world.
Another search spike occurred in April when U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal got emotional while talking about her gender-nonconforming child during a House committee hearing as she advocated for LGBTQ2 rights legislation.
The definition of “they” in relation to a person whose gender identity is non-binary was only added to Merriam-Webster in September this year. In October, the American Psychological Association (APA) endorsed “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in its latest style guide for scholarly writing.
“We believe writers should try to use a person’s self-identified pronoun whenever feasible,” said Jasper Simons, chief publishing officer for the APA. “The singular ‘they’ is a way for writers to avoid making assumptions about gender when it is not known.”
According to Helen Kennedy, executive director at Egale Canada, adding “they” to the dictionary as a non-binary pronoun is an important move.
“We often focus on legal changes and policy reforms to advance inclusion of LGBTQI2S people, but smaller steps like having they/them defined as a pronoun in the dictionary not only lifts a weight off of trans, non-binary, two-spirit and gender-diverse people when navigating everyday life, it also shows that our society is becoming more inclusive,” Kennedy previously told Global News.
“It also means there are zero excuses at this point for not respecting a person’s gender identity, and that is huge.”
Sokolowski told the Associated Press that “they,” one of a handful of non-binary pronouns to emerge in recent years, is “here to stay.”
Nick Adams, director of transgender representation for the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD, said Merriam-Webster’s choice is a positive step in acknowledging non-binary people.
“There is a long road ahead before language, policy and culture are completely affirming and inclusive,” Adams said.
The runners-up for Word of the Year included “quid pro quo,” “impeach” and “crawdad.”
Last week, Dictionary.com named “existential” its 2019 Word of the Year.
“In our data, it speaks to this sense of grappling with our survival, both literally and figuratively, that defined so much of the discourse,” said John Kelly, senior research editor for the site, ahead of the announcement.
The word earned top-of-mind awareness in sustained searches at Dictionary.com in the aftermath of wildfires and hurricane Dorian and mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas. It also reared itself in presidential politics and pop culture, including Forky the white plastic spork, who was the breakout star of Toy Story 4.
The soiled utensil is convinced his destiny is in the trash until he embraces his purpose as a treasured toy of kindergartener Bonnie.
“Forky underscores how this sense of grappling can also inspire us to ask big questions about who we are, about our purpose,” Kelly told the Associated Press.
Oxford Dictionaries picked “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year, noting usage evidence that reflects the “ethos, mood or preoccupations of the passing year,” the company said in a statement.
— With files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Laura Hensley and Arti Patel