Michaeline: Word of the Year!

Father Time with a butler snuffing out 1889's candle, and lighting 1890's candle.

Reflecting on words of the past year, looking forward to the new words to come in 2020. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Merriam-Webster (THE go-to official dictionary for many US publications) has declared that their 2019 Word of the Year is (drumroll, please) THEY.

I can’t help but think that M-W is absolutely right. Oh, sure, “they” has been around for a very long time. In fact, “they” has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun to correspond with “everyone” and “someone” for more than 600 years, M-W said on their website. It’s only recently that “they” has been used for nonbinary people.

I’ve seen “they” used in stories (both news and fiction), but in June, I heard it on my TV for the first time while viewing the BBC/Amazon Prime mini-series, Good Omens. (I talked about it in August here on the blog.)

The character was Pollution, and in the book, I remember the character being a “he” – but the book was written in 1990, while the TV program streamed 29 years later. “They” fit the character, and brought the story into the 21st century.

One of the foreign teachers in my neighborhood also became a “they” in 2019. They didn’t announce it directly to me, but I heard about it through the grapevine, and talked with them later at a party, and they said they identified as nonbinary.

It’s a bit confusing, I have to admit. It’s almost impossible to know a pronoun these days without asking, and asking still feels intrusive and like I’m asking about something that’s none of my business. But not-knowing really impedes a conversation.

Before I had kids, I wanted to be a person who didn’t see gender – just someone who saw people. But then, I slowly began to realize how much gender (or nonbinary) is a part of a person. I dressed my little girls in green and yellow, and they didn’t have much hair . . . and then I got strangely offended when people assumed they were males. I felt a little bit like it was an attack on all females, so I began adding flowers and gender-influenced clothing, figuring if the kids wanted to be nonbinary or even boys, they could express that as soon as they could make a choice in their own clothing (which, if I remember right, started when they were two – maybe a little earlier).

Gender and nonbinary are really important nuances, and I’m glad we finally have an officially recognized word to express ourselves more clearly.

Different countries have different words of the year, of course. In Japan, the kanji of the year was a Chinese character meaning “command” or “order” (as in put in order, regulated). Rei is the first kanji in the new imperial era which started in 2019, Reiwa (令和). I wrote about it here in April.

Have you seen any other good words of the year? Or bad ones? It’s always remarkable to see how people sum up their entire year in one word.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Word of the Year!

  1. I dislike “they” for nonbinary people. I think what we need is a new pronoun, or a set of pronouns for singular and plural. Taking a word (“they”) that means something else and repurposing it so it fits different categories altogether (nonbinary single) is just…weak.

    But that’s me. I noticed that the word of the year from dictionary.com is “existential,” as in “existential crisis.” Oh, yeah. Getting that.

    • I understand . . . I was fond of xe and xir for awhile, and I still think Mx. as a courtesy title is genius (although, I’m not sure how to pronounce it). I have a slight tendency towards androgyny, myself. Not enough to want to deal with educating people about my pronouns, so I’m happy to default to she/her, but I do feel it puts me in a slightly uncomfortable and tight box sometimes.

      I like “they” because it feels familiar. (Xe and xir feel very science-fictiony, thanks to the X. It reminds me of xenophobe, too.) Also, it aptly expresses the dual nature some people feel. However, I’m pretty sure there are other people who don’t feel any gender and would like to simply identify as human. I’m sure there are terms floating around, but it would be nice to get them out of the underground, and into a reputable dictionary.

      Words change so fast. I think it may have always been the case, but from a filter of 100 years or so, we were only able to see the words that were recorded in some way — a lot of neologisms were short-lived and lost. It’d be nice if we could have something like a baseball farm system for words. A junior league, and maybe the words would have a shelf-life of a month, and then they’d expire unless someone renewed them during the month they were alive. If they managed to survive for, say, a year, then they could graduate to an archive and a yearly dictionary.

      We have the technology, and we have enough word-nerds that I think it could be sourced. But oh, the word wars. I’m sure there’d be plenty.

      I like “existential”. It’s been floating around in my head quite a bit, and I keep trying to apply it to situations that don’t quite work, I think. It’s a word I need to get familiar with. (-: Other than when it’s linked to “crisis”.

      • I like the idea of a farm system for words! That’s brilliant.

        Well, it doesn’t have to be x. It could be a different, less complex letter. Maybe “t”? I’m thinking like ti for the singular and tis for the plural, except that won’t work because there’s already a tis in use. Maybe te and tes. Or maybe go with a “w.” I like w’s. Wi and wis. I don’t think there’s a wis.

        We have to get The New York Times on this. Where the Times goes, so go the grammarians.

        • (-: I think that’s probably the way to go. Them, or the New Yorker. Or both. I wonder what their official inhouse style guides say? I suspect, from the Google blurbs, that NYT does favor “they”. But I can’t tell if that’s just reporting, an opinion that doesn’t necessarily reflect NYT policy, or what. (I think they have a paywall, so I didn’t go beyond the Google blurbs.)

          But who knows? Someone may come up with something brilliant (probably grassroots from the community), and it’ll suddenly be all over the place.

          V might be a good one to use. The big problem with vi, vis, is how do you pronounce the “i”? Vee? Or to rhyme with why? Vai, Vee, Vai, Vine. (I me my mine) Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to blend the he-him-his-his and the she-her-hers-hers, too, and choose one.

          Japanese doesn’t use pronouns on a regular basis, so it’s not really a problem, although there’s still a great deal of prejudice and misgendering that goes on, despite everything. I think without the pronoun problems, most people never really have to think about it deeply, even though there are transgendered (? transvestite) entertainers on TV quite a bit, and also it seems a popular bar scene. And the androgynous look is fairly commonly accepted, here, especially for girls, sometimes for boys to a certain extent.

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