The pronoun “they” is Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year. The dictionary’s winning word is selected based on online search popularity: it must be a top lookup over the last 12 months and reflect an increase in searches as compared to the previous year. Merriam-Webster reports that searches for “they” rose by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.
In September, the dictionary expanded its definition of the pronoun, adding a new entry to encompass its growing usage as a singular pronoun “where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.” Merriam-Webster’s official recognition of this acceptation is an affirmation for the many who continue to face discrimination and harassment because of their gender identity.
In an article on its website, Merriam-Webster explains that lookups often spike along with a word’s appearance in the news cycle; unsurprisingly, “they,” was closely followed by runner-ups “quid pro quo” and “impeach” this year. Merriam-Webster cites Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s powerful announcement that her child is gender-nonconforming and goes by the pronoun “they” during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act in April. The dictionary’s statement also references the fluidity of language, noting that the word “you” was initially plural and can still be used in that context.
But this year’s winner proves that “even a basic term — a personal pronoun — can rise to the top of our data,” says Merriam-Webster. The Word of the Year mirrors our constantly-evolving uses of language as well as important cultural and social phenomena.