Gender is a thing of the past.
Okay, maybe not quite. But we’re getting there.
Merriam-Webster, of all things, made headlines this week when they announced that their “Word of the Year 2019” is They.
A personal pronoun is perhaps the last type of word that would be expected to make the news. But, well, this is the 21st century—and the times, they are a-changin’.
MW released the following statement as an explanation for giving puny little They the dictionary honor of the year:
“Our Word of the Year for 2019 is they. It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term—a personal pronoun—can rise to the top of our data. Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous 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.
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. There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary this past September.”
So, why has this personal, traditionally plural pronoun taken center stage?
As MW points out, standard English does not contain a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. As a writer and editor, I’ve studied the role of gender and sexism in language—which is rapidly changing. For example, “he,” “him,” and “his” used to be perfectly acceptable—and, in fact, were essentially the only acceptable pronouns—whenever a writer was presented with a situation in which gender was unknown or unestablished, such as:
“Before showing up for a final exam, a student should be sure that he has prepared thoroughly.”
Previous to recent decades, English speakers wouldn’t have batted an eye at this sentence. Historically, English hasn’t given a damn about inclusivity or sexism or gender assumptions or gender binaries.
But that’s all changing.
While “they” is still a clunky and not always accepted singular personal pronoun, it has rapidly grown in popularity and usage.
Its newfound function can be separated into two primary parts:
- Serving as a singular personal pronoun when the gender of a subject or object is unknown, unidentified, or unclear. In other words, it could serve as a substitute for “he” in the sentence above.
- Serving as a singular personal pronoun for individuals who don’t identify as either female or male, who object to the gendered nature of our language, or who choose to not subscribe to the gender binary.
While I’d love to believe my optimistic statement at the beginning of this article (that gender is a “thing of the past”), the reality is that it’s far from the truth. Homophobia is still widespread. Transphobia is probably more common than not. And many still criticize, object to, or look down upon those who don’t fall into the traditional two categories for gender.
Which is why Merriam-Webster’s choice for word of the year is important. And, more broadly, it’s why language as a whole is so damn important.
Language shapes how we see ourselves. It shapes how we see those around us. It shapes our worldview, our political views, and our ability to relate to and empathize with opinions, mindsets, or identities unlike our own.
Merriam-Webster’s announcement serves as a good reminder for all of us to be aware of the impact of language and to be open to changing our use of it as the world shifts and evolves.
It reminds us that even the tiniest of things—like a traditionally plural, generally overlooked personal pronoun—can make a difference.