Merriam Webster and Echo Anzai
April 7, 2020
Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year
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.
Echo Anzai knows who they are
If you’re looking for senior Echo Anzai, there’s a couple places you could find them, whether it be out on the track doing a long workout with Coach Anton Escay, in the art studio working on a painting with their friends, or in the classroom studying human bone structure with Mrs. Costello.
Anzai identifies with the pronouns they/them and the gender identity agender, which translates to “without gender”, meaning that an individual does not identify with any gender. This is a broader identity than non-binary, in which a person doesn’t identify with one of the two traditional genders: “male” or “female”.
Anzai describes themselves as “standing in the closet door”, they have come out once with their preferred gender, but were met with the comment that “that’s too difficult to remember.” Anzai says that for right now, they are happy with who they have come out to and don’t necessarily feel the need to make a big announcement to the world.
“I could come out if I chose, but for the sake of my energy, I choose not to come out where I’m met with confusion and transphobia,” Anzai said.
Anzai feels like school is a place that they feel more comfortable being completely out of the closet because people are either more accepting of them or not as influential in their life.“I have my safe spaces and I know who’s transphobic, so I am more free to run around and declare that my pronouns are they/them without judgement,” Anzai said.
Anzai’s academic interests lie in biological sciences, and they want to work with animals in their future career, hoping for a future opportunity to train animals. This love translates into the classroom, Anzai’s favorite class is Anatomy and Physiology.
Anzai doesn’t know what drives them to want to work with animals, their family has never had any pets that they can remember (they had a goldfish when Anzai was a baby), but they think that trips to the zoo and aquarium may have first awakened their love for animals which has turned into a career dream.
When they’re not examining the complicated mechanisms of the human body with Mrs. Costello or trying to figure out their dream job, Anzai enjoys running long distances on the levee or the track with their teammates, and pushing themselves to a new PR in the 800m (half-mile) and 1600m (mile).
Anzai says that track keeps them in shape to succeed in cross country, and trains them in a different fashion than the strict long-distance competitions of cross-country.
“Those (800 and 1600) are the perfect distance events for me,” Anzai said. “One tests my speed while the other tests my stamina.”
During the winter, Anzai also participated in wrestling, and they have interest in freestyle wrestling too. However, their many academic pursuits are taking up most of their time right now, making taking on a new endeavor like freestyle wrestling a daunting and unreasonable task.
Anzai expresses themselves through various forms of art, both traditional and digital art.
“I don’t exactly recall how I got into digital art, I think it was around the time I had my own Chromebook and really like seeing fanart from my favorite TV show at the time (Star Wars: The Clone Wars),” Anzai said.
After looking at various fanart examples that inspired them, Anzai started to work on some projects of their own.
“When I got my iPad, I did my first fanart for the book series Wings of Fire. It was a frustrating process because the app I was using wasn’t great, would crash on me, and lose half my progress unless I saved it, but it was worth it, and kickstarted my art journey,” Anzai said.
Since then, Anzai has practiced and improved their drawing skills, along with getting a better art program that is more user-friendly.
They also enjoy writing fantasy stories, hoping that when they get some more free time in the future, they can return to writing about the imaginary universe they had planned out but had to push to the side due to other commitments and changing interests.
There’s so much more behind senior Echo Anzai than their unconventional pronouns, from an interest in helping animals, to a love for running, to a passion for creating art. But they’re not willing to sacrifice their true identity to be accepted by unwilling members of society.
“At the end of the day, I do want to get my name and gender changed to how I feel and how I want to express myself,” Anzai said.