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Merriam-Webster declares 'they' its 2019 word of the year

The decision was based on a 313 per cent increase in look-ups on the company’s search site, Merriam-Webster.com, this year when compared with 2018.
The word "they" is displayed on a computer screen on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jenny Kane/The Associated Press)

A common but increasingly mighty and very busy little word, "they," has an accolade all its own.

The language mavens at Merriam-Webster have declared the personal pronoun their word of the year based on a 313 per cent increase in look-ups on the company's search site, Merriam-Webster.com, this year when compared with 2018.

"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 and "they" got an early start last January with the rise of model Oslo Grace on top fashion runways. The Northern Californian identifies as transgender non-binary, walking in both men's and women's shows around the world.

Another look-up spike occurred in April, when U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal got emotional while talking of her gender-nonconforming child during a House committee hearing as she advocated for LGBTQ rights legislation.

Merriam-Webster recently added a new definition to its online dictionary to reflect use of "they" as relating to a person whose gender identity is non-binary.

In October, the American Psychological Association 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."

The American Dialect Society, which is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, named "they" its word of the year for 2015, in recognition of its emergence among people who reject "he" and "she."

In September 2019, Merriam-Webster experienced another big increase in look-ups for "they"when pop star Sam Smith wrote on social media that their preferred pronouns were "they" and "them." Smith said the decision came after a "lifetime of being at war with my gender."

There's nothing ungrammatical about using singular they/them pronouns, Merriam-Webster senior editor Emily Brewster tells As It Happens host Carol Off. 5:36

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 AP Stylebook allows the use of "they" as a singular or gender-neutral pronoun in some cases.

The 10 runners-up for word of the year were:

  • Quid pro quo
  • Impeach
  • Crawdad
  • Egregious
  • Clemency
  • The
  • Snitty
  • Tergiversation
  • Camp
  • Exculpate

"Crawdad" made the list thanks to Delia Evans's bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing.

"The" saw a spike in lookups when when Ohio State University attempted to patent the word to protect its turf. It failed.

"Snitty" emerged on the lips of Attorney General William Barr in reference to a letter by Robert Mueller about a summary Barr wrote of the Mueller report.

We have Washington Post columnist George Will to thank for "tergiversation."

The word, meaning an evasion or a desertion, was Merriam-Webster's top look-up on Jan. 24 after Will used it in a column in reference to Lindsey Graham.

With files from CBC Books.

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