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Non-binary pronoun ‘they’ is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year

Word of the year is they
Credit: AP Photo/Jenny Kane; Francesca Roh/Xtra

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WEEKLY EXPLAINER

American-English dictionary Merriam-Webster announced on Tuesday that its 2019 word of the year is the non-binary pronoun “they.”

Here’s the background 👉In September, Merriam-Webster added more than 500 words to its dictionary, including the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.”

Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large, told Time magazine in September: “Some people are choosing to refer to themselves as ‘they’ not just in a singular way, but in a non-binary or non-gender specific way… Because its use as a pronoun has become so frequent and so public, it’s simply time for it to go into the dictionary.”

In an article published that same month, editors of the dictionary also explained that although the use of “they” as a singular pronoun is old, its usage as a non-binary pronoun is new. “There have always been people who didn’t conform to an expected gender expression, or who seemed to be neither male nor female. But we’ve struggled to find the right language to describe these people—and in particular, the right pronouns.”

How do they choose the word of the year? The word of the year is determined by search data, and searches for the word “they” have increased by 313 percent this year compared to 2018. Most searches are driven by what’s happening in the news—in 2019, a number of non-binary celebrities and public figures spoke openly about their identities.

In February, model Oslo Grace told Vogue: “I experience misgendering with every job I work.I focus on the people who want to learn my pronouns or specifically ask and we go from there!” Grace also told the magazine that people should always try to ask for someone’s pronoun to avoid messing up, and if they do mess up, they said, “Just say a quick sorry and move on with your sentence.”

In June, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness publicly announced they’re non-binary. In an interview with Out, Van Ness said, “I didn’t think I was allowed to be nonconforming or genderqueer or non-binary—I was just always like ‘a gay man’ because that’s just the label I thought I had to be.”

In September, British singer Sam Smith came out as non-binary and announced their pronouns as “they/them” via an Instagram post. Smith wrote, “I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM ❤ after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.”

Other celebrities like Pose’s Indya Moore and The Hate U Give star Amandla Stenberg also spoke about their experiences as non-binary people.

Now what 👉Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, said Merriam-Webster’s choice is an example of “the growing awareness and acceptance of the fact that gender is not binary.”

In an interview with Good Morning America, Adams said, “There is a long road ahead before language, policy and culture are completely affirming and inclusive… Using the correct pronouns for someone is simply respectful, just like using their name.”

Egale Canada Executive Director Helen Kennedy explained in an interview with Global News why Merriam-Webster’s announcement matters. “We often focus on legal changes and policy reforms to advance inclusion of LGBTQI2S people,” Kennedy said. “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.”

Just like “they,” the runners-up for Word of the Year—“quid pro quo,” “impeach” and “crawdad”—also appeared frequently in the news cycle this year.

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