Merriam-Webster dictionary Word of the Year 2019 is ‘they’

'The shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years,' dictionary states

Sabrina Barr
Tuesday 10 December 2019 16:14 GMT
Munroe Bergdorf says gender reveal parties are 'dangerous' for children

Merriam-Webster dictionary has announced “they" as its 2019 Word of the Year, explaining that the “shifting use” of the word has led to an increase in searches.

Earlier this year, the American dictionary revealed it had expanded the definition of the word “they” to reflect that it can be “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary”.

Three months later, the term has been named the company’s word of 2019, with Merriam-Webster stating that it is “surprising” how “even a basic term – a personal pronoun – can rise to the top” of its 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,” Merriam-Webster said.

“Lookups for they increased by 313 per cent in 2019 over the previous year.”

The dictionary explained that the English language lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun, which is why “they” has been used as one for more than six centuries.

However, in recent times the term has been used increasingly to refer to an individual who identifies as non-binary and prefers not to use gender-specific pronouns.

“There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the dictionary this past September,” the dictionary wrote.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that singer Sam Smith identifies as non-binary and genderqueer during an interview conducted with The Good Place actor Jameela Jamil.

Several months later, the musician announced their decision to change their pronouns from “he” and “him” to the gender-neutral “they” and “them”.

Stonewall UK explains that non-binary is an “umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’.”

In addition to its Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster also listed 10 more of its most popular search terms over the past 12 months.

  1. “Quid pro quo”, a term that has frequently been used during discussions about the Trump impeachment inquiry. The phrase’s translation in New Latin is “something for something”.
  2. “Impeach”, which has seen an 129 per cent rise in searches over the past year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the formal impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump on 24 September.
  3. “Crawdad”, which saw a spike in interest when Delia Owens, author of the New York Times-bestselling book Where the Crawdads Sing, was interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning. “Crawdad” is an alternative word for “crawfish”, which dates back to the early 20th century.
  4. “Egregious”, a word that was used by a Boeing pilot to describe an issue with 737 MAX planes.
  5. “Clemency”, after the governor of Tennessee granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who had been serving a life sentence for murdering a man when she was 16 years old, while she was a victim of sex trafficking.
  6. “The”, a word that The Ohio State University filed to trademark in August with the US Patent Office. “It’s truly rare to see one of the most basic function words in the English language spike in our data,” Merriam-Webster stated. 
  7. “Snitty”, which surged in interest when Attorney General William Barr used the word to describe a letter he received from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in May.
  8. “Tergiversation”, a term used by Washington Post columnist George Will in January. The word means the “evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement”, or the “desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith”.
  9. “Camp”, with the theme for May’s Met Gala being “Camp: Notes on Fashion”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit took inspiration from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”.
  10. “Exculpate”, a term that Mueller used in July while testifying before the House of Representatives. “Exculpate” means “to clear from alleged fault or guilt”.

In November, Collins Dictionary named “climate strike” its 2019 Word of the Year.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in