Merriam-Webster has announced the personal pronoun “they” is their word of the year for 2019, after a staggering increase in searches on the dictionary’s website.
Merriam-Webster reported lookups for the word increased by 313 per cent this year, compared to 2018.
In September, the dictionary added the new definition explaining “they” is “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”
Merriam-Webster senior editor Emily Brewster said pronouns are the English language’s most commonly used – yet overlooked – words.
“Like other common words (think go, do, and have) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users,” Brewster said.
“Over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the non-binary use, we’ve seen searches for ‘they’ grow dramatically.
“People were clearly encountering this new use and turning to the dictionary for clarity and for usage guidance.”
Non-binary usage of ‘they’ dates back 600 years
British singer Sam Smith, who identifies as non-binary, announced in September their pronouns are now “they/them,” and not “he/him”.
Merriam-Webster said the pronoun “they” has been in “consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s”.
“Regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular ‘they’ in casual conversation and often in formal writing,” Merriam-Webster said.
“’They’ is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female.
“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.
“The new use of they is direct. It is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female.
“If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun ‘they’, I would say, ‘This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.’”
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