Word Play – Redefining the world

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, January 24th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. He’s Nick Eicher.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And she is Megan Basham. Notice I didn’t say “They is Megan Basham,” although the Merriam-Webster dictionary might not have corrected me. 

Here’s George Grant with the January edition of Word Play, in which he explains why.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Merriam-Webster has announced its 2019 “Word of the Year,” as have the Oxford, Cambridge, and Collins dictionaries. Determined by various factors—page hits and popular searches on their websites, online polling, and editorial discretion—the words are intended to reflect the leading developments in popular English usage as it is inevitably shaped by current events and social trends.

We live in a world of sudden and dramatic shifts and changes, a world flooded with information and words. So, it’s probably not surprising that a host of new words—or old words with new meanings—crowd into the cultural consciousness as jargon, slang, or neologism. Seemingly out of nowhere our public discourse is peppered with words like deep-fake, rewilding, and non-binary; or, BoPo, slang for body positive, and FoMo, meaning fear of missing out.

The designation of the “Word of the Year” is intended to highlight an expression that particularly reflects the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the preceding year. Over the past two decades words like blog, meme, woot, woke, truthiness, vape, and Brexit have been named “Word of the Year” by one or another of the dictionaries.

This year, Merriam-Webster selected the word they as the “Word of the Year.” It is a repurposing of the traditional third-person plural pronoun as a first-person singular pronoun—used for someone whose preferred gender identity is non-biological and “non-binary.” According to the dictionary’s editors, this new usage literally burst onto the public stage this past year. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, for instance, revealed during a Judiciary Committee hearing that her child is “gender-nonconforming” and self-identifies with the pronoun they. British pop singer Sam Smith announced that he too now prefers to be called they. And the American Psychological Association recommended that the “singular they be preferred in professional writing over he or she.” 

The Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, and several online dictionaries were similarly progressive-minded, opting for words related to climate change: eco-anxiety, extinction, flight-shaming, climate-emergency, carbon-sink, plastic-footprint, and up-cycling.

So, once again we’re reminded that language is a worldview construct—and that the battle for the dictionary is nearly as fierce as the battle for the Bible. As John Locke once declared, “Whoever defines the words defines the world.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane) The word “they” is displayed on a computer screen on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, in New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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3 comments on Word Play – Redefining the world

  1. Russell Board says:

    Do you really mean that ‘they’ is now used as a “first-person singular pronoun?” I’ve heard ‘they’ used in place of ‘he’ or ‘she’, which makes it third-person singular. But is it really being used in place of ‘I’? How would that work? Please clarify. Thanks.

  2. Robert Franck says:

    I remember seeing a discussion about the word “they” as a third person singular when the gender of the referred person is unknown, even in biblical translations. That word has at times been used in that way. I would be interested in reading some about that older usage.

  3. Daniel says:

    Great piece, Mr Grant!

    This relatively new use of the pronoun “they” might make some sense (although not grammatically) for some confused folks.
    But as soon as one leaves the English language aside, this completely break down.
    I am a native Romanian (romance language) speaker, where all pronouns, singular and plural have either masculine or feminine genders. It seems to me that this crazy compelled speech is only made possible because of the simpler English grammar. It would make more sense to use the singular pronoun “it” instead of “they” – this way my ears wouldn’t hurt.
    I would be curious, Mr Grant, if you could make somehow an additional segment to this one, where you address this issue in other languages.

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