“They” is the Word of the Decade, say linguists at the American Dialect Society.
The personal pronoun employed by “nonbinary” individuals, meaning they identify as neither male nor female, was called a “vital indicator of social trends” by language experts in New Orleans at the Hilton Riverside on Jan. 3.
The organization also selected “(my) pronouns” — she/her, he/him or they/them — as their Word of the Year 2019. The singular “they” was previously chosen as 2015’s word of the year, as well.
“When a basic part of speech like the pronoun becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention,” the chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, Ben Zimmer, said in a statement. “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.”
Zimmer continued, “That trend is also reflected in singular ‘they’ being chosen as Word of the Decade, with a growing recognition of the use of they for those whose identities don’t conform to the binary of he and she.”
The winner was decided by a consortium of about 350 linguists, etymologists, historians, writers and students, who consider qualifying words of the year can be any word or phrase that has trended during the previous 12 months, according to the American Dialect Society’s guidelines. The group, founded in 1889, has gathered for a yearly vote since 1991, and has named two words of the decade since then: “web” for the 1990s and the verb form of “Google” for the 2000s.
This year’s winner won in a run-off against the word “meme,” which garnered 143 votes to 210 for “they.” Other contenders included “climate,” “woke,” #MeToo” and “#BlackLivesMatter.” Against “(my) pronouns,” top choices for word of 2019 were “OK boomer,” “quid pro quo,” “cancel” and “Karen.”
The society’s recent statement notes that voters “act in fun” and the vote does not sanction new words into the English language.
“Instead, they are highlighting that language change is normal, ongoing and entertaining,” they write.
According to Zimmer, “they” has outlasting potential, Reuters reported: “People want to choose something that stands the test of time and sums up the decade as a whole.”
The decision is indicative of a growing movement among young people who are bucking gender norms, such as “Younger” actor Nico Tortorella and their partner Bethany C. Meyers, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” newcomer Lachlan Watson, and British crooner Sam Smith, who took to social media in September 2019 to announce they/them as their preferred pronoun.
“Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” Smith, 27, tweeted.
In a subsequent interview with British GQ, the singer said, “Ever since I was a little boy, ever since I was a little human, I didn’t feel comfortable being a man really. I never really did.”
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