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Merriam-Webster dictionary just announced the personal pronoun ‘they’ as 2019’s word of the year

Lily Wakefield December 10, 2019
Sam Smith coronavirus COVID-19 To Die For

Sam Smith (Marc Piasecki/WireImage)

Merriam-Webster has announced that the personal pronoun “they” is the 2019 word of the year, with the greatest increase in searches on the dictionary’s website.

Merriam-Webster lookups for the word increased by 313 per cent this year, compared to 2018.

In September this year, the American English dictionary followed in the footsteps of the Oxford English Dictionary and Dictionary.com by adding “they” as a singular pronoun to reflect its use by non-binary people.

According to the announcement by Merriam-Webster: “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.”

The use of non-binary they/them pronouns has been the topic of a huge amount of discussion in 2019.

In September, Sam Smith announced that their pronouns were they/them, which caused outrage among trans-exclusionary people who just couldn’t handle using “they” as a singular.

But its use as a singular pronoun is not a new phenomenon, and actually dates back more than 600 years.

TheOxford English Dictionary traces back the first written use of a singular “they” to 1375, in the medieval romantic poem William and the Werewolf, however it is likely it was used in speech much earlier than that.

There are also other commonly used examples of pronouns that have both singular and plural uses, for example the “royal we” and “you”.

“You” is now used interchangeably to refer to individuals and multiple people, but was originally only a plural pronoun which evolved to have a singular use.

The singular use of “you” developed in the 17th century to replace “thou”, and the change was met with resistance in a similar way to how many people claim to struggle with using a singular “they”.

“They” was not the only LGBT-related word on the Merriam-Webster list, with the number of searches for “camp” shooting up following the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ in May.

Unsurprisingly, “quid pro quo” and “impeach” also made it into the top ten.

More: merriam-webster, non-binary, pronouns, Sam Smith, they, they/them, word of the year

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