Merriam-Webster announced Tuesday that it has chosen “they” as the 2019 word of the year.
The singular “they” is a pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a word that itself was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary in September of this year. The gender neutral pronoun is used in place of “he or she”.
And in September of this year, Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Sam Smith announced their decision to use gender neutral pronouns. Smith is far from alone. Around the same time, Merriam-Webster added gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “themself” to the dictionary.
While “they” may be increasingly common in modern language as English speakers strive for more inclusive words, its use as a singular pronoun is not new. As Merriam-Webster writes, “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.”
Despite the word’s long history, searches for “they” increased by 313% in 2019 compared to the previous year, according to Merriam-Webster.
While the dictionary didn’t officially select a runner-up for word of the year, it did note that searches for the phrase “quid pro quo” spiked 644% from last year. The Latin phrase, literally translated as “something for something”, is defined by the dictionary as “something given or received for something else” and as “a deal arranging a quid pro quo.” The phrase has come up repeatedly in the impeachment hearing of Donald Trump.