A lot has happened in 2019, including plenty of things that will likely set the bar for 2020, and the years to come. The word of the year, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is one of those last things: On Tuesday (December 10), the dictionary announced its word of the year is the singular pronoun "they."
This is not to say that "they" is a new word, or even that its use by people across gender identities is new. "English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years," Merriam-Webster wrote in the press release for the launch. In September, the dictionary updated its listing for "they" to include a definition that affirmed people whose pronouns are "they" and "them," thus correcting a significant amount erasure from a work of record, and making it that much more difficult for people to argue that denying someone's identity is a matter of grammar rather than bigotry.
People and communities living beyond the limiting gender binary of the male "he" and female "she" have existed and thrived for millennia; that more and more people now feel comfortable in establishing their pronouns and identity with a broader public speaks to the ways in which society is slowly but steadily waking up to the responsibility of affirming and honoring each person's identity.
Merriam-Webster listed other words like "impeach," "clemency," and "tergiversations" — in fact, six of the top 10 words of the year were related to the political imbroglio playing out in Washington, D.C., each and every day. But "they" nabbed the top spot because editors noticed people expressed a continued interest in using it it appropriately.
"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," editors wrote, adding that "lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year." Such interest may have been further sustained by Sam Smith's Instagram post about their pronouns, as well as a similar Instagram post by Atypical star Brigitte Lundy-Paine, and the continued rise of Pose star Indya Moore.
But the conversation can only do so much good on the page of a dictionary, either physical or digital. In order to continue to affirm and uplift nonbinary and gender-variant people, as well as everyone else in the LGBTQ+ community, it's crucial to not assume a person's pronouns when you first meet them — sharing your own when introducing yourself is a solid way to foster a safe space. And making a concerted effort to remember someone's pronouns matters, and prevents further erasure as a whole.