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NPR Arts & Life

The Word Of The Year Is 'They'


Every year, Merriam-Webster picks a word of the year. For 2019, the honor goes to the word they. More and more, it's being used as a singular gender nonbinary pronoun. And there was a spike this year in people looking it up. Merriam-Webster's editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, says people are curious about how the word's being used.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: The dictionary's job is to reflect the actual usage of the language. And so any definition we put in is entered because many people have used it. It's already part of the language, and we're reflecting that truth.

KING: Molly Woodstock is host of the podcast Gender Reveal, and they joined our colleague David Greene.


What was your reaction to Merriam-Webster picking they as their word of the year?

MOLLY WOODSTOCK: It makes a lot of sense to me because I think that they as a singular pronoun, as a pronoun for certain nonbinary folks is increasingly moving from only being talked about in queer and trans circles to the mainstream public consciousness. And I think that's in part due to celebrities like Sam Smith and Asia Kate Dillon using they/them pronouns. I think that you can't make other people trans, but you can certainly create the environment for folks to be more comfortable exploring their genders. And so the more examples we have of people who are using singular they pronouns for themselves, the more opportunity it creates for other people to say, hey, that resonates with me, and I'd like to try using singular they for myself.

GREENE: So I was interested because Merriam-Webster - they choose words based on numbers. I mean, it sounds like the number of lookups for they went way up. They say it reflects curiosity at this moment. I mean, what do you think is driving this greater curiosity?

WOODSTOCK: Well, I think that this is a new concept to a lot of people that there are folks out there who use they to refer to themselves instead of he and she. But once you look it up in any major dictionary, you'll find that singular they is perfectly acceptable. And now Merriam-Webster is recognizing that not only is singular they acceptable in a generic use case or as a gender-neutral term, but it's also acceptable for folks who are nonbinary and choose to use they/them pronouns. If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary - not to mix up our dictionaries, but they've tracked the use of singular they back to 1375. And so this isn't actually a new concept, but it's just new for lots of folks who haven't heard this before. So I think that that curiosity is a great thing. And it's really nice to see resources - really, really respected resources - like Merriam-Webster and like the OED really backing us up on this and saying, no, you cannot make a grammatical argument that singular they is wrong because we are here to say that this is perfectly legitimate.

GREENE: And, Molly, one conversation I will say I've had with people is if you say, you know, they are, could some people still assume that it's more than one person and not singular? I mean, is there still a grammar issue to deal with here?

WOODSTOCK: I guess. But, you know, a couple hundred years ago, we were using thou as a singular you. And when we shift to using you as singular, everyone lost their minds. And, like, we all recovered from that. So I think we can recover from this. The key to all language is using nouns when pronouns are going to be too confusing. But it's up to us to create context clues. And it's also up to us to adapt to new language, particularly when the language is existing to just accommodate and affirm the basic rights and identities of trans people. I don't think that's too much to ask.

GREENE: Do you get offended if someone uses the wrong pronoun?

WOODSTOCK: I mean, offended is a strong word, but it really depends on the context. If they do use the wrong pronoun and they don't know, then I will just politely say, hey, by the way, I use they/them pronouns. The only time in which I feel disrespected is when people are very aware that I use they/them pronouns, and they choose not to use it because they think it's optional. But my pronouns are just as much a fact - they're just - they're not up for debate. They're just as much a fact as your pronouns are, David. I would never call you she or they. I would call you he. And I expect people to do a similar thing for me.

GREENE: And just stepping back, I mean, in general, like, I imagine there are many people who've never even thought about this, maybe never met a person who uses a nonbinary pronoun. What would you want to tell them if they're listening?

WOODSTOCK: I would just say that I understand that it is very difficult at first. And I understand that it will require you to retrain your brain. But I would really ask those people to take this really seriously because just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean that it's not a real, legitimate use of language. And it doesn't mean that it's not very important to thousands, tens of thousands of people across the country and beyond. And so if you could take a little bit of time out of your day to practice using singular they pronouns in your everyday life, that could mean the entire world to trans people who are so routinely erased and misgendered and disrespected by society and help them feel not like they're getting extra rights but just that they're having their basic human right of having their identity seen and validated the same way that we all want.

GREENE: Molly, thanks so much.

WOODSTOCK: Thank you so much.

KING: That was Molly Woodstock. They host the podcast Gender Reveal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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