Small but mighty, the personal singular pronoun “they” has been crowned the “word of the decade” by the American Dialect Society (ADS.)
At a Jan. 3 meeting, language experts in the linguist society voted “they” as the Word of the Decade for 2010 through 2019, recognized for the pronoun’s “growing use to refer to a known person whose gender identity is non-binary.”
As for Word of the Year, members selected “(my) pronouns” — such as she/her, he/him and they/them.
“When a basic part of speech like the pronoun becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention. 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,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the society’s New Words Committee.
“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.”
Close contenders for the 2010-2019 Word of the Decade included “#BlackLivesMatter,” “climate,” “emoji,” “meme,” “#MeToo,” “opioid crisis,” “selfie” and “woke.” Meanwhile, “OK boomer,” “cancel” and "Karen” were respective runners-up for the 2019 Word of the Year, per a news release.
Linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, scholars and students comprise the 131-year-old ADS group, according to the release. In a larger sense, the group describes its Word of the Year as “interpreted in its broader sense as ‘vocabulary item’ — not just words but phrases.”
“The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year,” ADS explains.
In related headlines, Merriam-Webster also recently declared “they” as its 2019 Word of the Year. “They” seized the top spot in the annual, data-driven list after receiving a 313-percent search increase on the dictionary publisher’s website in comparison with 2018, the Associated Press reports.
In September, Merriam-Webster expanded the definition of “they” as relating to a person whose gender identity is non-binary. Weeks later, the American Psychological Association recognized “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in its latest scholarly writing style guide.
In 2019, “they” seized the spotlight and reportedly drove people to the dictionary after non-binary model Oslo Grace rocked the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week in January, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) spoke about her gender-nonconforming child while advocating for LGBTQ rights legislation during a House committee hearing in April and historic Pride celebrations were commemorated in June.
In September, pop star Sam Smith also revealed on social media that their preferred pronouns were “they” and “them,” an announcement inspired by a “lifetime of being at war with my gender."
As for other famous words of the year, Dictionary.com declared "existential" as its 2019 Word of the Year, while the Oxford Dictionaries chose "climate emergency" and Macquarie Dictionary, an Australian English dictionary, selected “cancel culture” for their respective words of the year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.