“They” is word of the year according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the oldest and most distinguished U.S. reference guide. Merriam-Webster cited a 313% increase in “lookups” of the word over the past year. How has such a simple, self-evident term risen to this distinction in the world of words?
In 2017, the popular tv show Billions introduced the nonbinary character Taylor Mason (played by Asia Kate Dillon) who used they/them pronouns in a significant recurring role. It features one of the most incisive scenes in television or film that captures the significance of nonbinary identity. Taylor says they don’t want to work in Axe’s company because they are different and the workplace culture is “discomforting.” Axe (played by Damian Lewis) responds, “Nah, you don’t belong here. You’re outside it all. Sometimes you catch yourself, watching all the people like they’re another species. So you retreat, behind your aquarium walls, watching. But you don’t realize Taylor, that glass — it’s not a barrier. It’s a lens. It’s an asset. It’s what makes you good. You see things differently. That’s an edge.” When watching it, I felt that Axe saw me and recognized what few people do: the strength and power that comes from living outside of the gender binary.
Earlier this year, headlines popped when the singer Sam Smith declared, “I am not male or female. I think I float somewhere in between.” In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Smith’s announcement elicited reactions. At first, Smith stated they would use male pronouns, showing that not all nonbinary people use “they” and that not everyone who uses “they” is nonbinary. Later, they announced they were embracing “they/them,” noting the shift in pronouns might be difficult for some people to get used to and explicitly stating: “all I ask is you please try.”
This plea for people to “try” captures some of the awkwardness involved in navigating the addition of “they” to our regular working vocabulary. This was evident in a scene from the One Day at a Time reboot in which one of the main characters, daughter Elena (played by Isabella Gomez) brings home a group of friends. The young people introduce themselves with a dizzying array of pronouns: “I”m Dani, my pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘her.’ “Syd, my pronouns are they and them.” “I’m Margo, pronouns ze and zir.” Elena’s mother, played by Justina Machado, fulfills the expected role of confused older person by responding, “I’m Penelope, my thoughts are ‘huh’ and ‘what’? Seriously, what is happening?” This scene portrays a generational divide that defines this issue and is especially pronounced outside of the LGBTQ community.
These cultural milestones are powerful, lending recognition and validity to an experience that has been marginalized, misunderstood, and mocked for a long time. But now what? What happens after a word is elevated to such distinction? Is it a celebratory exclamation point for a well-established transgender rights movement? Is it the opening line of a new story that has yet to be written? Does this mark an end of something or a beginning?
To answer these questions, let’s consider the fate of celebrated words from earlier years. This tradition began in 2003 when the word of the year was “democracy.” In the U.S. alone, our democracy is under siege from inside and out. Things have only gotten worse since a somewhat shocking 2014 Princeton University study declared the U.S. was no longer an actual democracy but rather functions more like an oligarchy. The words of 2005 and 2006 respectively were “integrity” and “truthiness” which share a mixed fate in public life these days, though there is no doubt both are under attack. Popular memes of president Obama—unblemished by personal moral or ethics scandals—point to a collective longing for “integrity.” The attack on “truth” is now a regular newspaper headline, though it has become so commonplace as to barely register notice. It is not uncommon for college students to claim there is no such thing as truth but rather we each have our own “truths.”
All of this is to say – don’t pop the champagne yet for “they.” If the history of the word of the year is any indication, such words rise to prominence not because they are established and accepted “truths” but rather because they are volatile and contested. In 2013 it was “science.” In 2017 it was “feminism.” Last year it was “justice.”
In my forthcoming book, I use “they/them” pronouns in reference to people who transed gender in one way or another. One colleague warned me that this practice would make the booked dated and shorten its shelf-life, predicting that singular “they”’s days are numbered. I disagree. I think it is here to stay because those who choose “they” as the word that best describes themself love it. Others who might not have previously thought much about gender are curious about the capaciousness it offers for a life less constrained by rigid norms and expectations. As a historian, I see it as a valuable tool that allowed me to write in a way that gets closer to the truth.
The more widespread usage, acceptance, and understanding of “they” as a singular pronoun is a great step forward. But this linguistic advance is no substitute for the material needs of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people such as access to housing, jobs, education, healthcare; basic legal protections from discrimination in all of these areas; and freedom from the disproportionate acts of harassment and violence of which we are the target. Then we will all have something to really celebrate.
Jen Manion is associate professor of history, Amherst College and author of the forthcoming Female Husbands: a Trans History (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Manion tweets @activist history.