Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"They" Won! Gender-Neutral Pronoun is 2015 Word of the Year

Gathering in Washington D.C. for its annual meeting, the American Dialect Society has made its 26th annual selection for Word of the Year. And as predicted in this space last month, the winner is a lowly pronoun: they used as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she, with special attention paid to its use as an expression of "non-binary" gender identity.

In the absence of a clear frontrunner drawn from politics or current events, they ran away with the competition after a year that saw greater acceptance of the traditionally plural pronoun in use as a singular form. They has long been a kind of stopgap when writers and speakers need a pronoun that doesn't specify gender in order to refer to someone generically, as in "Every person should be able choose the pronoun they want." That more general use of they has been making headway among editorial gatekeepers, as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last spring and as recently illustrated by changes to the Washington Post style guide.

But the development that made more of an impression on the language scholars who attended the Word of the Year selection was the more conscious choice use of they as a pronoun of personal choice. While many pronouns have been invented as identifiers that transcend the typical gender binary, they is the most straightforward choice for an expression of non-binary identity, as it is already in common use in the language.

In my capacity as the society's Chair of the New Words Committee, I presided over the spirited Word of the Year session. Since the ADS meeting is held in conjuction with the Linguistic Society of America and its other sister societies, we can always count on a large, boisterous crowd, and this year more than 300 attendees crammed into the Marriott Marquis conference room to take part in the WOTY festivities.

Before anointing an overall winner, we first voted on various secondary categories, working off the nomination list prepared in the previous evening's session. The momentum behind singular they was obvious after it won the first category, Most Useful, easily beating out other words like microaggression, referring to a subtle form of racism or other bias.

In the Most Creative category, the winner was ammosexual, a term for someone who loves their guns a bit too much. (Did you catch the singular their there?) The second-place nominee was adult used as a verb, meaning "act like a grownup." Our friend Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, picked adulting as her personal Word of the Year for 2014, and it garnered more fans in 2015.

Next in the Most Unnecessary category, the male hairstyle manbun was the big winner. (Man words in general seem a bit unnecessary.) And in the Most Outrageous category, the verb schlong, used by Donald Trump to mean "defeat soundly," got schlonged by an even more outrageous word, f***boy as a derogatory epithet for a man who is overly promiscuous or otherwise objectionable.

There was no contest in the Most Euphemistic category, as it was swept by Netflix and chill, a sexual come-on masked as an innocuous invitation to watch Netflix and relax. Most Likely to Succeed was won by the verb ghost meaning "abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially online," and Least Likely to Succeed went to sitbit, an imagined device rewarding sedentary behavior (playing on the Fitbit fitness tracker).

Two newly added categories focused on innovations in electronic communication. Last year saw the introduction of the Most Notable Hashtag category (with its winner, #BlackLivesMatter, going on to win the main prize as well). The category was carried over to this year's voting, and it was won by #SayHerName, which was used in a campaign to bring attention to violence against women of color.

Additionally, voters got to make a choice in the brand-new Most Notable Emoji category. While an emoji was not an overall winner as in Oxford Dictionaries' selection, the category nonetheless showcased the often playful ways that people are incorporating emojis into texts, tweets, and other electronic messages. The winner was playful indeed: the eggplant emoji (🍆), whose resemblance to a particular member of the male anatomy makes it an easy target for sexual innuendo.

The evening's voting ended with the main Word of the Year category, and singular they trounced the competition, which included the expression thanks, Obama (typically used in a sarcastic fashion as if any minor problem can be blamed on the President). This wasn't the first time that a pronoun was victorious: in 2000, the American Dialect Society picked she as its "Word of the Millennium." Perhaps they in its singular guise is the word of the new millennium?


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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday January 9th 2016, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Patrick G.
It seems to me that the most expressive gender-neutral alternative to he and she would be a portmanteau composed of She, He, and It. Chivalry demands that 'she' should begin the constructed new word and simple logic requires that the neuter pronoun should end it. The remaining two words, He and It, would, of course, be in alphabetical order.

I believe that those of us with love and respect for the unique history and beauty of our language would appreciate such a choice.

Sincerely,

Patrick Gray,
Sarasota, Florida
Saturday January 9th 2016, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Ando (Australia)
It's a shame that fear of gender has manifested itself in our culture and now in our language.

"Male" and "Female" don't undermine one another, they compliment one another - so much so that new life springs from their complementarity!

Gender is good, gender differences are beautiful, we should not fear being different from one another but recognise the great good that comes from that.

And this goodness should be expressed in our language!
Saturday January 9th 2016, 10:05 PM
Comment by: Patrick G.
Ando,
Beautifully expressed!
We are of one mind on this, my friend.
All the best,

Patrick Gray
Sarasota, Florida
Sunday January 10th 2016, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Ando (Australia)
You legend Patrick!
Sunday January 10th 2016, 9:58 PM
Comment by: kristakass (WI)
Patrick, your solution to the gender-neutral issue made me laugh out loud. Thank you for being clever.
Monday January 11th 2016, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Patrick G.
Kristakass,
I'm very glad you got it!
I hope that many are as sharp--and thoughtful.
All the best,
Patrick
Monday January 11th 2016, 11:24 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
Girls will boys and boys will be girl, it's a mixed up, muddled up, brave new world that has such people in't as the American Dialect Society. Thanks, Obama.
Tuesday January 12th 2016, 8:31 AM
Comment by: William B B.
In 1994, Lucian Wurhmwuhd proposed in his award winning book The Day the EPA Went Down, that the best solution to the gender neutral dilemma surrounding pronouns should be a well crafted acronym. Such would have several advantages over the then emerging and now ubiquitous they: first, a new word would be less offensive to the language habits of those born before 1960; second in these days of ever increasing intrusion into almost everyone’s lives by government at all levels, everyone has been softened up by the rain of acronyms he/she/it has been forced to learn just to function every day; and third, the acronym affords the best opportunity to avoid the greatest sin one can commit today, the unintended offending of another, in other words, one would not be in danger of being micro-aggressive simply by employing a necessary grammatical function. Wurhmuhd’s solution as proposed through his character Charles Edgerly, the self proclaimed master of acronyms, is SNIP - sexually neutral indicative pronoun -. First advantage achieved, it is new and does not rely on older pronouns, second advantage achieved in that it is an acronym, and third advantage achieved by Wurhmwuhd’s insightful use of neutral rather that the more grammatically correct neuter, thus avoiding the possibility of offending anyone even eunuchs. And one other great advantage, intended or not, the very word if spoken with the proper nuance could lend a certain snippiness to the speech of certain feminists who have been granted micro-aggression amnesty.
Alas, Lucian Wurhmwuhd’s proposal never took hold, and we now seem stuck with they.
Thursday January 14th 2016, 7:57 PM
Comment by: Bob (Taiwan)
As a non-native speaker of English and an avid English learner, I am happy to see "they" become a pronoun that is not sex-biased. :)
Tuesday April 12th 2016, 1:55 PM
Comment by: life (CA)
good job!!!!!
Thursday May 12th 2016, 8:06 AM
Comment by: verbatim ..
George Orwell would either be proud or horrified that he predicted this.

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