By Lauren Rearick
On Tuesday (September 17) Merriam-Webster announced it would be adding the definitions for 533 new words to its dictionary, and among the additions are dad joke, Bechdel test, and the singular they, a gender-neutral/gender-inclusive pronoun. That affirmation was a long time coming — and it could forever impact the lives of LGBTQ+ people, Sam Brinton, Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project said.
Emily Brewster, a senior editor for Merriam-Webster, told USA Today that Merriam-Webster frequently adds words to its dictionary, but she noted that continued support of the pronoun influenced an expanded definition of a word already in existence. “In more recent years, we have this nonbinary ‘they,’ which is now appearing in carefully edited text," she said. “It’s appearing in The New York Times. It is being chosen by people and mentioned in articles with some frequency. It’s simply not a usage that can be ignored anymore.”
The official dictionary entry reads that the word can be used “to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary,” though it’s important to use the correct pronouns for whomever you’re communicating with: Nonbinary, genderqueer, and/or gender-variant people might use any of a variety of pronouns, including xim, ze, sie, and hir, while others use he or she. (The most respectful way to affirm someone else’s pronouns if you’re not sure yet? Share your own.) The new definition joins the previous definitions of ‘they’: “those people, animals, or things; used to refer to people in a general way or to a group of people who are not specified; and used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent.”
The use of the word “they” as a singular pronoun isn’t new. For years, plenty of people have done away with the he/him or she/her binary that has limited gender expression when it comes to language. Sam Smith recently announced that their pronouns are they/them, joining Amandla Stenberg, Indya Moore, and Jacob Tobia, among others.
Christine Froula, a Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University told MTV News that “they” has been used for centuries. “[‘They’] emerged in English usage in the 14th century, usually to correspond with the semantic plurality of a word such as ‘everyone’ or with an indeterminate person,” Froula said. “Everyday speakers and writers, as well as other great English writers, for example, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, and Sir Walter Scott, have used it for centuries.” In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook updated its list of pronouns to better respect and reflect people’s gender identities, and in 2015, the American Dialect Society chose they as its word of the year, The Guardian reported.
LGBTQ+ people have continued to fight for inclusion and representation in areas ranging from pop culture to basic human rights, and Zeke Stokes, chief programs officer at GLAAD, acknowledged how powerful the moment was. “Merriam-Webster’s decision to recognize this by including the pronoun they in the dictionary is an incredibly positive step forward in bringing visibility and representation to the non-binary community,” Stokes told MTV News.
Brinton agreed and pointed out that adhering to someone’s chosen pronouns is not a difficult task, and goes a long way in showing respect. “To have a high-profile influencer like Merriam-Webster so openly educate others on the power of pronouns and the simplicity of the nonbinary use of they and them pronouns is going to make each coming day a little easier for thousands if not millions of LGBTQ+ youth who deserve the respect of properly used pronouns,” they said.
Froula told MTV News that even with the support of Merriam-Webster, it might take a while for the broader public to respect other people’s pronouns.. “Even with the best intentions, it is difficult for speakers to break unconscious grammatical habits and re-form new ones,” she said, and it’s possible that people might just refuse to adhere to what the dictionary now affirms. To that end, it’s up to everyone else to underscore why getting someone’s pronouns right is so important — and also, honestly? Not difficult at all.