Early on, Merriam-Webster declared itself part of the #Resistance, gleefully spotlighting words on an almost daily basis that served to mock President Trump and his administration. With no doubts left about the dictionary’s political leanings, we were less than surprised to hear that they had named “they” as their Word of the Year.
Time Magazine explains:
The singular “they” is a pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a word that itself was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary in September of this year. The gender neutral pronoun is used in place of “he or she”.
And in September of this year, Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Sam Smith announced their decision to use gender neutral pronouns. Smith is far from alone. Around the same time, Merriam-Webster added gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “themself” to the dictionary.
While “they” may be increasingly common in modern language as English speakers strive for more inclusive words, its use as a singular pronoun is not new. As Merriam-Webster writes, “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 is true that we’ve used that word – “they” – as a singular pronoun for a long time. For instance, if we were to pretend that we didn’t know who the Ukraine whistleblower is, we might use “they” to describe him/her, since we don’t know what gender “they” are.
But it is only (very) recently that we began using this pronoun on demand, bowing to individuals whose gender is very well known but who reject that gender because they are either deeply confused or because…well, no, that’s pretty much the only reason.
According to Merriam-Webster, the term saw a 313% increase in search popularity in 2019, no doubt spurred on by rational Americans who wanted to prove to woke leftists that they were using it wrong. Well, that was all the signal the dictionary needed to make a change, which they did in September.
“Pronouns are among the language’s most commonly used words, and like other common words (think go, do, and have) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users,” wrote Merriam-Webster senior editor Emily Brewster. “But 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.”
Language changes – that’s nothing new. But the degree to which it is changing on demand is pretty startling, if not outright disturbing.