Why the singular “They” is Merriam-Webster's word of the year

"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.

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  • Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
  • The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
  • Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."

You've heard of the Person of the Year, but did you know that Merriam-Webster announces a word of the year? Each year, they select a word notable for having been subject to a spike in online definition searches. The fact that "They," as common a pronoun as any, saw a 313% increase in searches this year is remarkable.


The world of the word of the year

Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, told the New York Times that "they" has gotten a remarkable amount of attention this year. "A pronoun like 'they' is one of the building blocks of the language, but with the nonbinary usage, people are sensing that it means something new or different, and they are going to the dictionary. When you see lookups for it triple, you know that 'they' is a word that is in flux."

That might be an understatement.

As the idea of fluid gender identity becomes more widespread, the understanding that "they" can be used as a singular pronoun has, too. It is not uncommon to see a person include their preferred pronouns in their email signature. Many celebrities have recently announced their use of it as the pronoun by which they'd like to be referred to. The publication manual for the American Psychological Association has also endorsed the use of the singular they as both a basic courtesy and because using the wrong pronoun does have negative consequences.

Runners up for word of the year included quid pro quo, impeach, and crawdad. These words saw increases in lookup frequency of 664%, 129%, and 1,200%, respectively.

While you might be concerned that these words, save for crawdad, are all politically motivated, that is putting the cart before the house. Sokolowski points out that many of the words that see this kind of increase in traffic are related to major political events or cultural movements. That's probably why last year's winner was "justice," and 2017's was "feminism."

But my teacher told me never to use "they" as a singular pronoun! 

A common complaint, and one that will no doubt plague this announcement is that "they" is to be used strictly as a plural pronoun, only in reference to two or more people, and that using it to refer to one person is an error.

These people are out of luck, as Merriam-Webster added the singular they, notably when it is used as a gender-neutral pronoun, to its definition of the word earlier this year. The editors of the dictionary have cited its increasingly common and established usage as the motivation for the addition. Several other dictionaries have followed suit.

That's the thing about English. There is no single authority declaring from on high what the language is or is not. Fundamentally, it belongs to the people who use it. People define it by their usage of it. Because of the rising demand for a singular gender-neutral pronoun, which English officially lacked, over the last few years, a word had to be found to fit the role. "They" fit the bill perfectly.

This isn't some communist-hippie drivel either. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued back in 1953 that "meaning is use." If that isn't enough to convince you, here is Shakespeare using they as a singular pronoun 400 years ago in A Comedy of Errors:

"There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend."

Here he is doing it again in Hamlet:

"Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech."

If Shakespeare is misusing the English language, I don't want to be right.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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