For the 16th year in a row, Merriam Webster has selected one word from the English language to stand above all others as the Word of the Year. Traditionally, the word settled on by the dictionary and reference book publisher is one that, in some way, reflects on or pertains to the year's top events. And this year's word is no exception. Merriam Webster's 2019 Word of the Year is "They," a personal pronoun that has steadily been gaining prominence — and for good reason.
Merriam Webster announced Tuesday that their 2019 Word of the Year was "They," a pronoun that although old (I'm talking really old, like more than 700 years old), has recently experienced something of a rebirth. According to Merriam Webster, "They" has been consistently used as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s, although most often in cases where gender was unknown. More recently, however, the word has come to serve as a gender neutral pronoun for those who identify as nonbinary or gender nonconforming.
"The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female," the publishing company stated earlier in the year when it officially revised its breakdown of the word to include its use as a nonbinary pronoun.
According to Merriam Webster, as use and conversation of "They" as a gender neutral personal pronoun grew, so too did inquiries into the word. And ultimately, it was this increased curiosity about the word that propelled "They" to become Word of the Year. "It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term — a personal pronoun — can rise to the top of our data," Merriam Webster said Tuesday of its Word of the Year. "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."
In fact, Merriam Webster said that lookups relating to the word "They" increased 313% from 2018 to 2019. Some of that could be due to American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal revealing in April that her child was gender-nonconforming and used "They" and "Them" as their preferred pronouns and British singer Sam Smith announcing in September that they would begin using gender neutral pronouns for themselves.
Of course "They" wasn't the only widely searched term. Merriam Webster revealed Tuesday that "quid pro quo," "impeach," "crawdad," and "egregious" were also among the year's top 10 searched terms. Ultimately, however, "They" topped the list with many quick to celebrate the publishing company's Word of the Year as a step toward greater recognition for nonbinary gender.