Gender nonbinary pronoun 'they' is Merriam-Webster's 2019 'word of the year'

LGBT activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall, October 24, 2018 in New York City.
LGBT activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall, October 24, 2018 in New York City. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Merriam-Webster announced Tuesday that the word “they” was its “Word of the Year for 2019,” mainly due to the news it garnered as a term used by individuals who identify as gender nonconforming.

In an announcement, Merriam-Webster said “they” was the most-looked-up word this year, with the dictionary company noting that the word saw a 313 percent increase in lookups in 2019 compared to last year.

“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,” Merriam-Webster explained.

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“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.”

Merriam-Webster went on to note that the nonbinary use of “they” was added to their dictionary in September and highlighted multiple news items fostering searches for the word.

“Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., revealed in April during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act that her child is gender-nonconforming and uses they,” the announcement added.

“Singer Sam Smith announced in September that [he] now use[s] they and them as pronouns. And the American Psychological Association’s blog officially recommended that singular they be preferred in professional writing over ‘he or she’ when the reference is to a person whose gender is unknown or to a person who prefers they,” Merriam-Webster continued. 

Another top search was the Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” a legal term that means “something for something” that was frequently used in news reports on efforts to impeach President Donald Trump.

Other words on Merriam-Webster’s list of top searches include “impeach,” “crawdad,” “egregious,” “clemency,” “the,” “snitty,” “tergiversation,” “camp,” and “exculpate.”

Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD, celebrated the announcement by Merriam-Webster as evidence of increased acceptance of individuals who identify as nonbinary.

“Using the correct pronouns for someone is simply respectful, just like using their name,” Adams said in a statement, according to the Hill. “Merriam-Webster's choice is the latest example of the growing awareness and acceptance of the fact that gender is not binary," Adams claimed, adding, "but there is a long road ahead before language, policy, and culture are completely affirming and inclusive.”

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases centered on whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to gender identity and sexual orientation.

One of the cases, Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, centered on whether a Christian funeral home operator could lawfully fire an employee who refused to wear clothing that corresponded with their biological sex.

In March, Jamie Shupe, the first man in the U.S. to be legally recognized as "nonbinary," came out against that gender identity, calling it a “sham.”

In an interview with The Christian Post earlier this year, Shupe gave a warning to young people who identify as nonbinary or gender nonconforming.

"I understand that you are reluctant to take the advice of older people and would prefer to test things out yourself, but you can't walk this harm back. You only have one body. You only have one reproductive system. Please don't ruin it chasing the fantasy that you are something other than your biological sex," Shupe said.

"While your suffering is real, a gender transition is not the answer to your problems. Right now there is no reward for being the person who resists succumbing to gender dysphoria. That's going to change and you should be proud to be a part of that change."

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