Ottawa Citizen: The pronoun "they" becomes word of the year - and it's about time

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By Brigitte Pellerin
Photo by Wayne Cuddington

We’re finally getting used to the idea that some people identify as gender-neutral or gender non-binary and, more importantly, that it’s totally fine.

What do democracy, blog, integrity, bailout, austerity, socialism, science, culture, feminism and justice have in common? Take your time. I’ll go fetch

myself a cup of tea while you work on it.

What, nothing?

All right, try truthiness. Does that one ring any bell?

They’re all words of the year, selected by the American company behind the dictionary Merriam-Webster. It’s a tradition that started in 2003, to highlight words that reflect how our society is evolving.

At least, the English-speaking chunk of our society. In a common-law type of approach, words are added or become prominent based on everyday usage, not because some snooty academy tells you that, to pick an example entirely not at random, the feminine form of “auteur” is no longer “auteure” but the indigestible “autrice.” A word that sounds way too close to “autruche,” and what female writer wants to remind anyone of a bird with an enormous butt best known for burying its head in the sand in times of trouble?

But I digress.

The 2019 word of the year is “they.” Why? Because of an increase of 313-per-cent increase in the number of times it was looked up over 2018.

And why are we suddenly so interested in an ordinary pronoun we’ve used for more than half a millennia?

Because we’re finally getting used to the idea that some people identify as gender-neutral or gender non-binary and, more importantly, that it’s totally fine.

It’s not a new issue; there have always been people who don’t fit into the tidy polar opposites of man or woman. I know, because I’m one of them. It’s just that until very recently we didn’t talk about any of that openly.

It’s not a new issue; there have always been people who don’t fit into the tidy polar opposites of man or woman.

In my day, if you didn’t fit into either of those boxes, you were the one with the problem. Do I need to explain what a terrible idea it is to make teenagers feel guilty about who they are?

Ottawa Coun. Catherine McKenney, the first openly LGBTQ person to run for office in our fair town, understands that very well. Last summer, McKenney decided to add “they/them” to her … no, wait, to their Twitter bio. I asked them why.

“I have identified as trans-non-binary for many years but had not given much thought to my pronouns,” they explained. “However, the more I heard about youth and others not always being respected with their choice of pronouns, I made a decision to use my privilege as an elected person to help raise the issue.”

No, McKenney will not get offended if you use “she/her,” which I’ve done myself in print before noticing their Twitter bio. Because let’s be honest, it’s still a new thing and, well, humans are creatures of habit and we forget easily.

McKenney said the response to their change of preferred pronouns “has been overwhelmingly positive from the general public, my friends and colleagues. City staff have changed the pronouns in my official bio.”

I understand that for some people these issues are hard to understand. If you’ve always been comfortable in your gender box, you may have trouble imagining how ill-fitting that same box might be to others. That’s fair. But it doesn’t make it any less real.

I look back sometimes and wonder how different my teenage years would have been if we’d been able to talk openly about gender expression. It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have felt like a square peg trying to squish myself into a round hole, convinced that it was my shape, not that of the hole, that was the problem. Who knows, I may have been a lot less obnoxious and alienated if I’d felt like I belonged.

And if you find it upsetting or confusing, console yourself with this: At least in the English language, we do have a gender-neutral pronoun, and our language evolves naturally from the ground up. Not so in French, where the masculine is by default neutral and where linguistic rules get imposed on us from on high.

Either way, here’s to progress, however you identify yourself.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer.

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