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The singular pronoun “they” has been named the Word of the Decade

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Lauren Geall
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The American Dialect Society have announced their decision to name the word “they” as their word of the decade, in recognition of “its growing use to refer to a known person whose gender identity is non-binary”.

Although we may not think much of the language we use to communicate on a day-to-day basis, the words, phrases and expressions we employ to navigate and describe the world around us are massively important, and can tell us a lot about the culture we’re living in.

From “binge-watch” to “emoji” and “youthquake” to “climate emergency”, the words of the year chosen by dictionary and language organisations over the last couple of years speak volumes about the world we live in. But what about deciding upon a singular word to encapsulate a whole decade? 

For the last 30 years, the American Dialect Society has joined its fellow organisations in naming a word of the year (they chose “(my) pronouns” for 2019), but to mark the end of the 2010’s, they have also chosen a word they believe represents the past decade: “they”. 

“When a basic part of speech like pronouns becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention,” Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, said at the announcement.

“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,” he 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’.”

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Other words shortlisted by the American Dialect Society for Word of the Decade included “#BlackLivesMatter”, “#MeToo” and “woke”. 

The naming of “they” as the word of the decade comes after the Merriam-Webster dictionary named the word their word of the year. Collins Dictionary also highlighted the rise in the number of people identifying as gender non-conforming by adding the word “non-binary” to their dictionary.

Over the last year, numerous high-profile personalities have spoken out about their non-binary identities, including Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness and actor Rose McGowan. And in September 2019, Sam Smith announced their decision to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Writing on Twitter, they said: “Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided to change my pronouns to THEY/THEM. After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out…”

If one things for sure, the naming of “they” as the word of the decade shows how far society has come when it comes to accepting people whose identities do not fit in to the male/female binary – and that’s something to celebrate.  

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Lauren Geall

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