A surge in searches for the definition of an old-school pronoun signals a new, nonbinary meaning.
This article was first published on December 10. 2019 by Amy Harmon on nytimes.com.
Merriam-Webster announced the pronoun “they” as its word of the year on Tuesday, marking the rise of the use of the venerable plural pronoun to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.
The word of the year, the dictionary publisher said, is based on data: Searches for the definition of “they” on the publisher’s website and apps increased by 313 percent in 2019 over the previous year. Last year’s word was “justice.” In 2017, it was “feminism.”
The public’s interest in words is often driven by major news events, said Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster. Other words that generated high year-over-year comparisons this year — “quid pro quo” and “impeachment” — are tied to political headlines.
But a surge of searches for the meaning of a utilitarian word like “they” is less common. It is likely to reflect both curiosity and confusion about the growing use of the pronoun for nonbinary individuals.
“A pronoun like ‘they’ is one of the building blocks of the language,” Mr. Sokolowski said. “But with the nonbinary usage, people are sensing that it means something new or different, and they are going to the dictionary. When you see lookups for it triple, you know that ‘they’ is a word that is in flux.”
Many Americans, especially older ones, stumble over the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. “For those who haven’t kept up, the complaint is this,” Merriam-Webster wrote in an earlier blog post on the topic. “The use of they as a gender-neutral pronoun (as in, ‘Ask each of the students what they want for lunch.’) is ungrammatical because they is a plural pronoun.”
But for nonbinary individuals who identify as a gender other than male or female, being referred to as “he” or “she” is inaccurate. Over a third of Americans in their teens and early 20s know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, according to a Pew Research survey conducted last fall. That is double the number of those in their 40s, and triple those in their 50s and 60s.
Efforts to destigmatize other gender identities have sparked the disclosure of pronouns on social media profiles and email signatures. Some state and city governments have recently added an “X” option for nonbinary genders on state identification documents, which used to be limited to the options “M” and “F.” And amid efforts this year in at least six states to make the practice law, state legislators have been grappling with the singular “they,” The New York Times reported.
Merriam-Webster added the singular “they” for a person with a nonbinary gender as a definition of the word in its dictionary, noting that the use of the singular “they” to refer to nonbinary individuals is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as on social media.
To illustrate, the dictionary cited a passage from a recent Times article:
I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing … They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary — that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.
On Tuesday, Merriam-Webster cited several 2019 news events to explain the curiosity that appears to have driven searches for “they.” During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Representative Pramila Jayapal noted that “they” is her child’s pronoun; the singer Sam Smith announced that their pronouns are “they” and “them”; and the American Psychological Association recommended that singular “they” be used in academic writing to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or who uses it.
“As a word lover, what’s interesting in this story is to see that social factors play so directly into language change,” Mr. Sokolowski said. “That is something that we sort of know intuitively but we don’t often see it as clearly as we see it here.”
Amy Harmon is a national correspondent, covering the intersection of science and society. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for her series “The DNA Age”, and as part of a team for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” @amy_harmon • Facebook
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 11, 2019, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: A Workhorse Of Language Is Recognized In a New Role.