Language is ever evolving. And sometimes, a word misused enough gets redefined.
Take “disinterested.” The word means “impartial” and “unbiased,” but because it has been misused for so long, the Merriam-Webster dictionary now defines it as meaning “not having the mind or feelings engaged, not interested.”
So it is that a plural pronoun has been redefined as a singular pronoun — and then named the Word Of The Year for 2019.
The word “they” won the top spot in the dictionary’s annual contest after receiving a 313-percent search increase on the dictionary publisher’s website in comparison with 2018, the Associated Press reports. Merriam-Webster has expanded the definition of “they” to include a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.
“Our Word of the Year for 2019 is they,” Merriam-Webster wrote on its website Monday. “It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term, among the most common in the language — a personal pronoun — can rise to the top of our data. 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, and especially in the past year. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year. This curiosity is remarkable for a venerable old pronoun, but this is a special case, and a consequence of shifts in the way they is used.”
The dictionary made the case that the plural word can be used as singular.
English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, someone, and anyone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years. Much of this use is unremarkable:
Everyone likes pizza, don’t they?
No one has to come if they don’t want to.
And the dictionary says the word “you” was once plural, too.
“Nonbinary they takes a plural verb, despite referring to one person, which can make the grammatically conservative uncomfortable. It’s helpful to remember that the pronoun you was initially plural, which is why it too takes the plural verb even when it’s referring to a single person. ‘You are’ has, of course, been perfectly grammatical for centuries, and it’s worth noting that thee and thou were long ago completely displaced by singular you in standard speech and writing — concrete evidence of the constant evolution of language. We don’t even notice the singular use of you today, and it’s quite possible that the nonbinary they is headed for a similarly unremarkable fate — only usage and time will tell. In the meanwhile, the word is spending some time in the spotlight in 2019.”
Emily Brewster, Merriam-Webster senior editor, said in a press release: “Pronouns are among the language’s most commonly used words, and like other common words (think go, do, and have) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users. But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the non-binary use, we’ve seen searches for they grow dramatically. People were clearly encountering this new use and turning to the dictionary for clarity and for usage guidance.”
“Commenting on Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, Nick Adams, director of transgender representation for advocacy group GLAAD, said the selection of ‘they’ was a positive step in the right direction for the greater LGBTQ movement,” Fox News reported. “There is a long road ahead before language, policy and culture are completely affirming and inclusive,” Adams said.
Other words that made the Top 10 list included “quid pro quo,” “impeach” and “crawdad,” searched after the publication of the bestseller, “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Others in the list included “egregious,” “clemency” and “snitty,” used by Attorney General William Barr referencing a letter by special counsel Robert Mueller about a summary Barr wrote of the Mueller report following his investigation into allegations of collusion between President Trump and Russia.