By George Biggs
Over 500 words have been added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary this month. Amidst all the technical lingo and abbreviations, the inclusion of ‘they’ as a personal pronoun marks an important step for nonbinary individuals.
Merriam-Webster is an historic American dictionary company, established in 1828. The new batch of words added to their dictionary has humorous inclusions such as ‘sesh’, ‘dad joke’ and ‘Escape Room’. However, the most striking addition is the alternative use of ‘they’ as a personal pronoun.
The definition of ‘they’ has been expanded to include: “to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
This comes after the increasing number of people identifying as nonbinary. This gender identity denotes a spectrum of individuals who don’t conform to masculine or feminine genders, but instead choose to sit between them or outside of them entirely. ‘They’ is the pronoun many nonbinary people choose to go by, as it does not have the gendered connotations of ‘he’ or ‘she’.
This alternative use of ‘they’ was thrust into the spotlight after singer Sam Smith came out as nonbinary in a tweet on 13 September and stated his pronouns as “they / their / them”. The announcement was met with widespread support, amassing nearly 50k retweets and 350k likes.
Some have expressed that ‘they’ is not a valid personal pronoun because it is used as a plural, but this ignores the ‘singular they’ – a pronoun used personally since the 1300s. It was used if the gender of a person was unknown or unimportant. Only in modern times has there been an advent of ‘he or she’ instead of ‘they’, which is clunkier and more exclusionary.
Merriam-Webster also added a new definition of ‘inclusive’, meaning “allowing and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)”. Even if you struggle to understand the complexity and conflict gender identity can bring, it costs nothing to make people feel seen and accepted.