Online dictionary Merriam-Webster.com has announced its word of the year for 2019 – ‘they’.
The selection is determined by data and must have been a top lookup at Merriam-Webster.com in the past twelve months. It must also have seen a significant increase in lookups over the previous year.
“Our Word of the Year for 2019 is they. It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term, among the most common in the language—a personal pronoun—can rise to the top of our data,” the group said.
“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, and especially in the past year.”
Merriam-Webster said that lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.
This curiosity is remarkable for a venerable old pronoun, but this is a special case, and a consequence of shifts in the way they is used, it said.
English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, someone, and anyone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.
More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as all over social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers.
There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary this past September.