The term follows other Words of the Year like justice, feminism and surreal

By Rachel DeSantis
December 10, 2019 11:50 AM
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Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Merriam-Webster dictionary
| Credit: Charles Krupa/AP/Shutterstock

Merriam-Webster has announced that the nonbinary pronoun “they” is its 2019 Word of the Year.

The dictionary only added the nonbinary definition of “they” to its pages in September, but said that searches for the word were up by 313 percent this year over last year.

“Pronouns are among the language’s most commonly used words, and like other common words (think go, do, and have) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users,” Merriam-Webster senior editor Emily Brewster said in a statement to CNN. “But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the nonbinary use, we’ve seen searches for ‘they’ grow dramatically.”

Merriam-Webster said its annual list of words is determined each year by data, and that lookups are often driven by events in the news.

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This year, the dictionary pointed to several newsworthy instances, such as singer Sam Smith’s announcement in September that they now go by they/them pronouns, and Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s April reveal during a House Judiciary Committee hearing that her child is gender-nonconforming and uses they pronouns.

“People were clearly encountering this new use and turning to the dictionary for clarity and for usage guidance,” Brewster said.

The new definition of “they” was among more than 530 words added to the dictionary in September, and reads as follows: “Used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” The word’s previous two definitions both referred to a group of people, animals, or things.

“They” follows in the footsteps of other words of the year like justice, feminism, surreal and -ism.

Meanwhile, the other words and phrases that rounded out this year’s top 10 include quid pro quo, impeach, crawdad, egregious, clemency, the (after The Ohio State University filed a trademark application for the word with the U.S. patent office), snitty, tergiversation, camp and exculpate.