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They must be joking about the word of the year

With “they” hitting top of the charts for Merriam Webster, it’s a good indication that gender non-binary preferred pronouns are here to stay.
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

Merriam Webster’s word of the year is “they,” that ubiquitous plural word that’s been turned singular, individualistic, and is a smoke signal sent up to claim special status in the gender landscape. “They” was a top look-up for the dictionary site; “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.”

People just want to know what it means, and how they can and should apply it, either to themselves, or to those who request it. The pronoun has been omnipresent, on name badges, in Twitter bios, and in the continuous discourse over which pronoun should be used for whom and upon what whim.

Celebs have embraced “they” this year, staking their claim to being just a little bit different than all the other taboo-breaking popsters out there. Brit singer Sam Smith changed his pronouns to the gender-neutral “they” after doing some choreography that made him realize there was a “vivacious woman inside [their] body.”

Jonathan Van Ness, of Netflix’s hit self-improvement, show Queer Eye has determined that he is they, as has Chilling Adventures of Sabrina star Lachlan Watson. Nico Tortorella, from TV Land’s “Younger,” claims that when they met their spouse Bethany, “he was a boy and she was a girl, whatever that means… Today Bethany and [they] both identify as non-binary and prefer ‘they/them’ pronouns.”

It’s always a touching moment when a newly minted they comes out as they for the first time, before lights and cameras, with welcoming applause and accolades. It can be done in a think piece, or a quick video, or on social media. Brigette Lundy-Paine, from the show Atypical, came out via Instagram post, “where they posted a picture of their cat with the caption, “I’m non-binary, always felt a lil bit boy, lil bit girl, lil bit neither. Using they/them as of late n it feels right.”

They has come to mean so much more than “those people over there,” and is representative of an entire gendered alt lifestyle, wherein a person believes themselves to be neither male nor female, but some variation on the assembled themes.

In assigning “they” word of the year status, perhaps Merriam Webster is signalling its own intentions to go all-in on the trans trend of pronouns adoption and word transition. So far, their definition of woman is still “an adult female person,” but the jury is still out on whether the dictionary will be brought up on hate speech charges for specifying a female correlation to the word.

This is not the first time “they” has made a splash. In fact, when academics were trying to eliminate the sexism in the standard use of of “he” in academic papers, they often switched to “they,” and pluralized instead of using they as a singular.

In a statement, senior editor at Merriam Webster, Emily Brewster, said “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. But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the nonbinary use, we’ve seen searches for ‘they’ grow dramatically.”

The choice to give they top billing in the word of the year charts was data driven, not human decision making. They simply had more lookups. Perhaps that’s because the more it is used out of context and outside the realm of its normal definition, the more people realize that their understanding of this simple word has been compromised.

But never fear, great uneducated public! If they is confusing, if preferred gender pronouns are vexing, there are multiple guides to help you figure out how to ask what someone’s pronouns are, how not to ask, how to figure out if maybe you yourself are alt gendered.

You never know, you could be agender, androgyne, androgynous, bigender, cis, cisgender, cis female, cis male, cis man, cis woman, cisgender female, cisgender male, cisgender man, cisgender woman, female to male, ftm, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender questioning, gender variant, genderqueer, intersex, male to female, mtf, neither, neutrois, non-binary, other, pangender, trans, trans*, trans female, trans* female, trans male, trans* male, trans man, trans* man, trans person, trans* person, trans woman, trans* woman, transfeminine, transgender, transgender female, transgender male, transgender man, transgender person, transgender woman, transmasculine, transsexual, transsexual female, transsexual male, transsexual man, transsexual person, transsexual woman, or two-spirit.

With “they” hitting top of the charts for Merriam Webster, it’s a good indication that gender non-binary preferred pronouns are here to stay. Before next year’s International Pronoun Day on October 16th, take some time and figure out if you are they. It would be a real hate crime to find that you have been misgendering yourself, and you don’t want to be accountable for that. You, too, might be a they at heart. After all, we contain multitudes.

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Libby Emmons
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