Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Pronouns Prevail for Word of Year and Decade
Ten years ago, the American Dialect Society selected tweet as its word of the year for 2009 and google as the word of the decade 2000–2009. It was, you may recall, the acme of the optimistic Information Age, "where every person has the ability to satisfy curiosity and to broadcast to a select following, both via the Internet," said Grant Barrett, then chair of the ADS's New Words Committee. In a first for the ADS — which has held a Word of the Year vote since 1990 — both of the anointed words were originally upper-case, trademark-protected commercial names.
Just how much our attention has shifted since then is evident in this year's votes, conducted on January 3 during the American Dialect Society's annual gathering in New Orleans. Although digitally influenced words like meme, emoji, and sksksk (a keysmash representing laughter or amazement) made the longlist of nominees, the winning word of the year for 2019 was (my) pronouns, and the word of the decade was singular or nonbinary they. Linguistically, it seems, the first decade of the 21st century celebrated our devices; the second was all about our selves.
As the ADS press release put it:
" (My) pronouns” was recognized for its use as an introduction for sharing one's set of personal pronouns (as in "pronouns: she/her"), while singular " they" was recognized for its growing use to refer to a known person whose gender identity is nonbinary. Singular " they" was previously selected by the ADS as the 2015 Word of the Year.
"(My) pronouns" has been gaining acceptance for several years. (A vocabulary item doesn't have to be brand new to qualify as a Word of the Year, but it does have to be newly prominent or notable.) The MyPronouns.org website, which provides resources on personal pronouns, was launched in January 2017 by Shige Sakurai, a transgender person of color who founded International Pronouns Day — the third Wednesday in October — and uses they and them. Many social-media bios now include pronoun instructions.
Ben Zimmer, the former executive editor of the Visual Thesaurus who succeeded Grant Barrett as chair of the ADS's New Words Committee and who writes about language for the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, noted in the ADS press release that "When a basic part of speech like pronouns becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention. 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."
As for singular and nonbinary they, University of Illinois professor emeritus Dennis Baron has documented our struggles with it in his blog, The Web of Language, and in a new book, What's Your Pronoun?, that looks at historical attempts to solve English's "missing word" problem. As Baron (he/him/his) pointed out in 2018, they is "a plural pronoun that doubled as a singular for more than 700 years." What's relatively new — as recognized in the Word of the Decade vote — is its use as the pronoun of choice for people who do not identify as either male or female.
In addition to this year's vote and the 2015 selection of they, ADS has recognized a pronoun once before: In 2000, the society picked she as the Word of the Millennium. Its rationale:
Before the year 1000, there was no she in English; just heo, which singular females had to share with plurals of all genders because it meant they as well. In the twelfth century, however, she appeared, and she has been with us ever since.
This year, "(my) pronouns" beat three competitors, all of them skewing distinctly cranky: ok boomer, "a retort to someone older expressing out-of-touch or condescending views"; cancel, "withdraw support from someone considered problematic or unacceptable"; and Karen, "stereotype of a complaining, self-important white woman, typically a member of Generation X." (You can read more about the symbolism of Karen on the Namerology blog.) The political word of the year was quid pro quo, the exchange of favors central to the Trump/Ukraine scandal; the euphemism of the year was people of means ("billionaires"), which Visual Thesaurus columnist Mark Peters wrote about in March 2019.
As a name developer and member of the American Name Society — whose meeting ran concurrently with the ADS's — I always pay attention to the ANS Name of the Year vote. I even play along, submitting my nominations in advance of the vote. This year I was delighted to see top honors going to a name I’d nominated, the remote, esoteric, and meaning-laden Arrokoth. Here's what I submitted in my nomination:
The distant Kuyper belt body — a billion miles beyond Pluto — went through multiple designations after its initial discovery in 2014 and was finally dubbed "minor planet 486958.” Before the New Horizons probe flew over it on January 1, 2019, NASA received about 34,000 name suggestions. The final selection, Ultima Thule (literally “farthest Thule," Thule being the farthest north location mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature and cartography). Didn't stick: It turns out that Ultima Thule is used by Nazi occultists as the mythical home of the "Aryan race." In November, NASA announced the replacement name, Arrokoth, which means "sky" in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.
Two of my other submissions — TikTok for Trade Name of the Year and Baby Yoda for Artistic/Literary Name of the Year — also were selected. For someone who lives and breathes names and onomastics, it hardly gets any more satisfying than that!