Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year

Emma Hutchinson, Mirada Staff

Infinite combinations of only 26 letters make up all of our communication. 

Some words are bland but necessary, some unnecessary but interesting. Some words have only one meaning, while some have many. 

But one of the most interesting things about word is how their meanings and significances change over time and across cultures.

Every year, major dictionaries such as Oxford and Merriam-Webster come out with their Word of the Year, or WOTY, which is a single word or phrase that that company believes is representative of that year. Past words have included justice (2018),  feminism (2017), surreal (2016), and -ism (2015). 

Last December, Merriam Webster announced that their 2019 WOTY was the singular “they” pronoun. “They” refers to an individual whose gender identity is nonbinary in place of the gendered pronouns “he” or “she”. 

Over the years, many different pronouns to represent non-gendered populations have been introduced, in fact, Time magazine estimates that humans have come up with over 200 gender neutral pronouns over the years, but none have had the success that singular “they” has. 

Dennis Baron investigates “they” in the context of other gender-neutral pronouns in his book What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She. He discusses his idea that other pronouns have struggled to gain traction either because they are too unwieldy (like the phrase “he or she”) or simply look too strange on the page (like “hizzer, “ze”, and “thon”). 

Initially, grammarians discussed the use of “he” as the pronoun for someone of an unknown or non-conforming gender, but that has since been rejected due to its common use to refer to only males. Baron discusses the political and legal implications of this, given that many legal cornerstone documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights use “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun.

Senior Samantha Klein agreed, saying that the conventional use of “he” disqualifies it from being gender-neutral. 

“I think ‘he’ should not be used because it is a pronoun that is already associated with a certain gender,” Klein said. 

In September, Merriam-Webster added “they” as well as “themself” to their dictionary, and since then, searches for “they” increased by 313 percent compared to the previous year.

Generation Z is commonly cited as the root of the inclusion movement, with a study from a UK market research company showing that currently, only two-thirds of Gen Z identify as exclusively heterosexual, although it is still early to collect that data.

“Our modern day world is so much more accepting and people are able to be themselves and the gender identities that they choose,” said Klein. “The societal changes that have occurred are really good and definitely a positive improvement.”

With increasing numbers of LGBTQIA+ youth comes an increasing demand for inclusion from traditionally marginalized groups in all aspects, including cultural vernacular. 

When an individual doesn’t identify as female or male but rather nonbinary, gender non-conforming, or agender, there is not a clear choice in the English language as to what that person’s pronouns should be as to best fit their gender identity. 

“They” has been widely adopted as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, and with the addition of a new definition for the word by Merriam-Webster in Sept. 2019, the use of “they” as a singular, non-gendered pronoun was cleared grammatically as well. This eliminates an argument against “they”, which is often that it is grammatically incorrect or too clunky.

Baron says the main argument against “they” is that pronouns replace specific nouns with generic replacements, so a new pronoun would distract readers and interrupt the flow of reading.

But supporters say that an attention-drawing pronoun is positive, and that it brings necessary attention to the patriarchal roots of the “pronoun culture”.

English teacher Adam Bearson stood somewhere in the middle, saying that “they” as a singular pronoun can provide clarity, but can also create problems. He says whether he would accept it in a student’s paper depends on how effectively it is used to convey a writer’s specific purchase.

“If a student used “they” in a paper because it clarified or shed light on the fluidity of the gender of the subject then I would accept it,” said Bearson. “If it created confusion or misunderstanding for any reason I would reject it.”

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 WOTY indicates a continued push not just by Gen Z, but by everyone, for more inclusive language that fits every individual’s preferences.

“We can call ourselves whatever we want. If we identify as ‘wizard’ or ‘giraffe’ or ‘they’ and want to be referred to by that word, then great. We have control over our own self-concept,” said Bearson in accordance with Baron, who argues that language is a dynamic concept, and will therefore transform along with changes in culture, whether people like it or not.