Language Corner

The top words of 2019

January 6, 2020

The gender-neutral pronoun “they,” which has been exploding in usage and acceptance, is the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Decade and Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. The ADS Word of the Year was “(my) pronouns,” an expression in which someone tells you how they want to be known.

The end of every year brings retrospectives on language from many dictionary editors and word aficionados. Their selections are made on different criteria: some use the data of how often the words were looked up, and some go deeper and look at cultural and linguistic influences. ADS does the latter: By selecting both “they” and “(my) pronouns” to end the 2010s, ADS sends a strong signal of the importance of a fuller range of gender identity.

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The trajectory of “they” is reflected by the ADS’ choice of it as word of the year for 2015.

Spend any time on social media or in college classrooms, and it’s impossible to escape how many people introduce themselves with their names and the pronouns they prefer. It’s a direct way to emphasize that gender cannot be assumed. And in an age of increasing sensitivity to individual identity, it’s becoming as important to know someone’s gender identity to address them properly.

“When a basic part of speech like the pronoun becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, in a news release. “The selection of ‘(my) pronouns’ as Word of the Year speaks to how the personal expression of gender identity has become an increasing part of our shared discourse.” And the selection of “they” as Word of the Decade reflects “a growing recognition of the use of they for those whose identities don’t conform to the binary of he and she,” Zimmer said.

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M-W added that singular, nonbinary sense of “they” to their dictionary in September. In announcing that “they” was their choice for Word of the Year, M-W said that it “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.”

As we and thousands of others have written, the singular “they” has been around for hundreds of years. We use it in everyday speech if we don’t know the gender of the person under discussion, or in expressions like “everyone should bring their own book.” That last one comes under fire by strict grammarians because, technically, “everyone” is singular and “their” is plural. But times change. As Zimmer wrote in 2016, when “they” was the WOTY: “In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation. While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.” Both the Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style added the singular “they” in gender circumstances in 2017.

So “they/them/their” is not going away anytime soon. To insist that someone else must use a binary pronoun when they do not have a binary gender identity is simply wrong and disrespectful.

On a lighter note, some of the words that made the final list for the ADS include “ok boomer,” the expression mocking attitudes of the baby boomer generation; “cancel,” the act of ignoring or withdrawing support or contact with someone you don’t agree with; and “Karen,” which the ADS defined as “stereotype of a complaining, self-important white woman, typically a member of Generation X.” Those are all negative and dismissive, if not insulting, statements, so it’s great to see that an expression of respect beat them out. named  “existential” its Word of the Year. As their blog said, “Existential, as a word and theme, was prominent in discussions of topics that dominated 2019: climate change, gun violence, and democratic institutions. It also popped up in lighter stories in popular culture, signaling its place in the cultural zeitgeist.”

And Oxford Dictionaries got the jump on everyone by naming its Word of the Year on November 20. Their choice—“a word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”—is “climate emergency.” As they said, in 2018 “emergency” was attached to “climate” more than it was attached to any other word, like “health,” marking a sea change in usage.

Oxford’s selection followed by several months the decision by the Guardian to start calling environmental crises “climate emergency” and “global heating.” Raising “climate change” to “climate emergency” reflects the increasing urgency felt by scientists and others to view what is happening to the earth as an “existential” threat.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.