The company revealed on Tuesday that there was a 313 percent increase in searches of the word “they” on Merriam-Webster.com this year when compared to 2018.
“English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years,” read a statement from Merriam-Webster. In recent years, “they” has gained more prominence for its singular pronoun use, thanks to the growing awareness of non-binary and gender-nonconforming (GNC) individuals.
According to MW’s announcement, the first search spike for “they” occurred as early as January, when non-binary model Oslo Grace began making appearances on top fashion runways. Another spike occurred in April, when U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) brought up her gender-nonconforming child while passionately advocating for LGBTQ rights legislation during a House committee meeting.
In September, yet another spike came about when pop star Sam Smith announced their preferred pronouns are “they/them/their” on social media. Smith said that the decision came after a “lifetime of being at war with my gender.”
Merriam-Webster has added a new definition to “they” that acknowledges its use as a pronoun for non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. Other organizations are catching on as well: The American Psychological Association endorsed “they” as a singular third-person pronoun this October, and the American Dialect Society named the singular pronoun “they” its word of the year all the way back in 2015.