Merriam-Webster names ‘they’ as word of the year, a top search for gender non-binary pronoun

Merriam-Webster added the gender-neutral “they” to the dictionary in September.
Merriam-Webster added the gender-neutral “they” to the dictionary in September.(NBC15)
Published: Dec. 11, 2019 at 7:16 PM CST
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Merriam-Webster named “they” as its 2019 word of the year.

According to the dictionary, searches for the pronoun increased by 313 percent this year, compared to last year.

Merriam-Webster explained, “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.”

It continued, “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.”

Emmalee Pearson, who teaches at Madison College, said the label allows gender non-conforming people to take ownership of their identities and not put them into boxes.

“Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be known and identified how they see best,” Pearson said. “Some people don't like being called by their full name. They have a nickname. People get really upset if you deviate from that. Just like that, people don't want to be misidentified as incorrect gender.”

Merriam-Webster announced in September that it added the gender-neutral “they” to the dictionary. Pearson said there have always been gender non-conforming people and that this step is a sign of their greater visibility.

“For millennials, self-identity is really important,” she said. “So I think it’s becoming more commonplace to not assume gender like it has been in the past.” Pearson said she always asks her students what pronouns they use.

Pearson said she not only uses she/her pronouns but also they/them to normalize the use of what’s non-binary.

The correct pronoun, she said, helps people understand where somebody is coming from and who they currently are.

Merriam-Webster also listed “quid pro quo” and “impeach” as other top searches of the year.

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