Included in a list of over 500 words and new meanings just added to the Merriam Webster dictionary is a new definition for the word “they” — specifically, as a singular pronoun used by people whose gender is non-binary.
The expanded usage sits alongside embiggened definitions for “inclusive” and “colorism”, as well as new entries for pop culture phrases ranging from “dad joke” and “vacay” to “sesh”, “escape room”, and “coulrophobia”. (That’s the word for fear of clowns, which certainly has some increased relevance right now.)
“It’s an expansion of a use that is sometimes called the ‘singular they’ (and one that has a long history in English),” explains a post on the dictionary’s official site. “When a reflexive pronoun corresponding to singular use of they is needed, themself is seeing increasing use.”
It’s an important update, as people whose pronouns are “they” and “them” are still being confronted by pedants who insist that the usage is not grammatically correct.
It’s long been perfectly fine to use “they” to refer to a single person whose gender is unknown or undetermined, as in “Someone’s at the door — can you see what they want?” But certain folks still can’t seem to cope with the exact same usage when it’s in reference to a specific person. (Although if someone’s trying to correct you when you tell them your pronouns, it might not actually be your grammar they have a problem with.)
The Merriam Webster Twitter account has no problems dishing out cheeky rebukes to people wielding words in the name of shitty ideas, whether they’re calling out Trumpisms or joining the growing exasperation at Neil Degrasse Tyson’s nitpicking.
While the dictionary regularly announces new and expanded definitions in April and September, the timing here is especially significant given that singer Sam Smith’s recent request that they be referred to using “they” and “them” copped some less-than-supportive responses.
But along with being an important show of support for non-binary and genderqueer people, this is simply the dictionary doing its damn job. A word or phrase’s usage and commonly understood meanings feed into one another, and at a certain point, the book that tells us what words mean needs to reflect what we actually use them to mean. You don’t have to use “inspo” or “vacay” in conversation just because they’re in the dictionary now, but you do need to get your head around this one if you haven’t already.
And while it might feel a little clunky or awkward to anyone who’s not used to using “they” and “them” in this sense, that’s not a good enough reason to keep using language that tells someone their identity doesn’t matter to you.
So next time someone tries to defend their discomfort with changing gender norms by wrapping it in pedantry and prescriptivism, you can now let the actual dictionary have the last word.