It’s THEY. Why would that have been chosen as the WOTY? Everyone knows what they means, don’t they? Look at that last sentence I wrote: Everyone is singular and they is a plural pronoun. Not so long ago, that would have been considered a grammatical error. However, it’s very common for people to use that “incorrect” construction, the singular they, in speech and in everyday informal writing.
But Merriam-Webster is calling attention to this use of they for a serious reason. The LGBTQ community has been advocating for an inclusive pronoun that does not refer to any specific gender. Trans people are troubled by the use of he and him or she and her; Jamie may have been assigned one gender at birth but later transitioned to another gender. Do we refer to Jamie as she or as he? Or is Jamie gender-fluid? Sometimes, Jamie may even be referred to by the de-humanizing pronoun it.
To be respectful of the variety of human identity and sexual orientations, they has been adopted to represent everyone. If you don’t know what pronoun a person prefers, my thinking is that they would welcome you asking them.
Language changes. All languages change. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all used they/them/their in their writing when referring to one person. But then The Grammarians (you know, people like me) insisted on strict pronoun agreement: singular with a singular referent, plural with plural. I no longer do. If a person is comfortable using they as their pronoun, I respect that. I hope you’ll think about what making this small gesture might mean to that person.
As each year comes to a close, the various dictionary companies present their “words of the year,” based on how often those words were looked up.
The 2018 Word of the Year for Merriam-Webster is JUSTICE. I wondered why this particular word was so frequently looked up, as it’s one most people would be familiar with. Merriam-Webster’s guess is because the Department of Justice was cited so often this past year because of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s dealings with the Russians. Now it remains to be seen whether justice will be served.
In case you were wondering (and even if you weren’t), here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Merriam brothers and Noah Webster:
- In 1828, George and Charles Merriam founded the company as G & C Merriam Co. in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1843, after Noah Webster died, the company bought the rights to An American Dictionary of the English Language from Webster’s estate.
This is fun—check out this link: Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler. Enter any year and find what words were first introduced into the M-W Dictionary that year. See what words were born when you were.
Lake Superior State University, of Northern Michigan, released its 43rd annual list of words and phrases that chilled many of us to the core in 2017. Here are the 14 that made the list:
Unpack (not talking about suitcases here)
Let that sink in
Let me ask you this
Impactful (I can still recall the first time I heard this, about eight years ago, and I’m still shuddering)
Covfefe (Did we ever figure out what this meant?)
Hot water heater (It’s a cold water heater—or just a water heater)
Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is youthquake, while Merriam- Webster went with feminism.
I’d also add “Believe me.” When I hear that, I immediately question the veracity of the speaker. What are your “favorites”?
No, not the ones George Carlin once observed could not be said on TV (but now are commonly heard). These come from the Trump administration, which informed the Centers for Disease Control that the following words will not be acceptable when preparing the budget for 2018:
The CDC is a scientific organization. Try writing for that organization without using the words on the list. If you remember the term “newspeak,” from George Orwell’s 1984, you may be shuddering, as am I. Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of newspeak:
In other words, reshaping and restructuring language to suit political ends, and the truth be damned.
bizarre: a surreal mix of fact and fantasy
Are we surprised? Interestingly, searches for this word peaked on November 9, the day after the presidential election.
© Judi Birnberg My Bigliest Painting
If you were among the 84 million people who watched Monday night’s presidential debate, you might have sat up straighter in your seat when Donald Trump announced, “I’m going to cut taxes bigly.” My posture suddenly improved as I yelped, “BIGLY?” Perhaps, as many now think, he meant to say “big league.” But he didn’t say that.
I then joined the zillions of people googling “bigly” and discovered that it is, according to Kory Stamper, a linguist with Merriam-Webster, a word that dates to approximately 1400, when it was used to mean “with great force” or “boastfully.” Then “bigly” disappeared for a very long time, only to be curiously resurrected this past Monday night.
I started thinking: If we do something “grandly,” “spaciously,” minutely,” or “microscopically,” then we could do something bigly. If we wanted to. I don’t want to. How about you?