They rule!

The word “they,” increasingly used as a nonbinary gender pronoun, is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, the dictionary announced Tuesday, noting that searches for the personal pronoun on its site jumped 313% in 2019 over the previous year.

Nonbinary refers to gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine.

“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,” Merriam-Webster notes. “More recently, though, ‘they’ has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers.”

Other terms recognized by the dictionary this year as topping the list of lookups include “impeach,” “exculpate,” and “quid pro quo.”

The choice to highlight “they” as the standout word, which was entirely driven by search data, reflected a “surprising fact,” as Merriam-Webster wrote on its website: even a word as basic as a personal pronoun “can rise to the top of our data.”

“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,” Emily Brewster, senior editor at Merriam-Webster, said in a statement.

“But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the nonbinary use, we’ve seen searches for ‘they’ grow dramatically,” Brewster added.

The bump in popularity of “they” as a nonbinary pronoun this year came from a wider use of the term by prominent figures in the news, such as singer-songwriter Sam Smith — who announced in March they identified as nonbinary — and Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who revealed in April during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act that her child is gender-nonconforming and uses “they” as their pronoun.

In September, Merriam-Webster officially added to its dictionary a definition of “they” as “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

Solidifying the status of “they” as of word of the year, Merriam Webster added that, “the American Psychological Association’s blog officially recommended that singular ‘they’ be preferred in professional writing over ‘he or she’ when the reference is to a person whose gender is unknown or to a person who prefers ‘they.'”

Earlier this month announced that its word of the year was “existential,” reflecting a much somber take on popular culture in 2019.

“The words we saw people looking up in 2019 signal a broader concern about safety, security and survival, in ways both immediate and far-reaching,” John Kelly, the website’s senior research editor, said.

The website’s runner-up word of the year was more aligned with Merriam-Webster’s pick: “nonbinary,” which it defined as “a person with a gender identity or sexual orientation that does not fit into the male/female or heterosexual/gay divisions.”


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