Non-binary singular personal pronoun ‘they’ is word of the year


This was announced by Miriam-Webster today.

Merriam-Webster has named “they” its word of the year.

The US dictionary also recently added a new definition of “they”, reflecting its use as a singular personal pronoun for non-binary people.

Searches for “they” on Merriam-Webster’s website were 313% higher this year than they were in 2018.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, told the Associated Press news agency that searches shot up when Oslo Grace was rising to prominence, when Sam Smith came out, and when US congresswoman Pramila Jayapal spoke about her gender-nonconforming child while arguing for LGBTQ rights legislation in April.

“It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term – a personal pronoun – can rise to the top of our data,” the dictionary said in a statement.

“Although our look-ups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of ‘they’ has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years.

“English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like ‘everyone’ or ‘someone’, and as a consequence ‘they’ has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.”

In addition to being respectful towards the gender non-binary community, it also immensely simplifies things when trying to write in the third person.

Comments

  1. file thirteen says

    @WMDKitty #2

    Are trees and bacteria inanimate objects? How would you refer to one of them (sic)? Just because I’m human, do I have to have a gendered pronoun to refer to me in the singular third-person case, or is the only solution that I share the plural third-person pronoun? What about pets; where is the line drawn in animals and aren’t humans animals too?

    I’m griping because I personally would like each human to be referred to as “it” in the third person, but it’s just anonymous internet griping. I’ve bemoning already having lost the war. Don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely do not mean to suggest that if you’re not “he” or “she” then you’re “it”, because of the dehumanising connotation of “it”.

    I wanted us to dispense with “he” and “she” entirely and use “it” for us all and lose that sense of dehumanisation, and once we all became used to that then there would be no need to co-opt “they”, but it was all a dream, just a dream.

  2. Holms says

    The US dictionary also recently added a new definition of “they”, reflecting its use as a singular personal pronoun for non-binary people.

    But… they has been used as a singular personal pronoun for centuries. Surely a dictionary should know this!

    But they do know this. So why on earth are they describing this as a new definition, while also saying that it has meant this for 600 years??

    “English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like ‘everyone’ or ‘someone’, and as a consequence ‘they’ has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.”

    If ‘they’ has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for 600 years, then English has not lacked a gender-neutral singular pronoun. That’s how meaning works: if a word is used for _____ purpose, then _____ purpose is one of the meanings of that word.

    Bizarre announcement.

  3. jrkrideau says

    It is nice to see the Miriam-Webster is catching up. Only another 600 years to go. I have often “one” (French “on”) rather handy.

  4. file thirteen says

    @WMDKitty #5

    Who’s “we”?

    It’s been used co-opted for at least 600 years as a singular pronoun.

    FTFY.

  5. anat says

    file thirteen, it is incredibly rude (OK, bigoted) to propose ‘it’ as a pronoun for humans, especially members of a group that is and has been experiencing severe discrimination and oppression. In any situation where one would use ‘she’ or ‘he’ for a specific member of a major gender, the use of ‘it’ is inappropriate for any human.

  6. anat says

    file thirteen, I don’t care if for whatever reason you think ‘it’ should be appropriate for all humans, the fact that you bring it up in the context of discussing pronouns used by members of a group whose marginalization involves imposing on its members pronouns against their choosing indicates lack of empathy and consideration at the very least.

  7. file thirteen says

    @invivoMark #7

    In fact the Farsi
    او is precisely what I’m looking for, an unambiguously singular non-gendered pronoun for animates. Can that word be spelled in the Latin alphabet? I would love to co-opt that into English.

  8. file thirteen says

    (Re comment above, to replace all of he, she and singular they, in case I wasn’t clear or am being insensitive again)

  9. file thirteen says

    It seems what I’m looking for is Elverson Spivak. Basically, use “they” and its derivatives, but drop the “th” to indicate it’s a singular reference.

    This appeals to me particularly because you can say things like “ey loves emself”, where if you used “they”, “loves” sounds wrong, and if you used “love” then it’s at the cost of sounding even more plural, and “themself” looks odd in conjunction.