As 31st December ushered in the arrival of a new decade, an inevitable onslaught of think-pieces and ‘best of’ lists have dominated media channels seeking to analyse the 2010s and locate some sense of zeitgeist in a culture that feels evermore divided. Perhaps overlooked against the annual round-ups of pop culture blockbusters are the humble offerings of the various linguistic associations that routinely and independently vote for what they deem the word of the year: an item of language, old or new, that encapsulates the state of popular discourse across the preceding twelve months.
While Merriam Webster elected ‘they’ as 2019’s word of the year, citing a 313% increase in searches linked to its increasing use as a gender-neutral pronoun, the American Dialect Association have bestowed ‘they’ not only word of the year, but word of the decade, citing its encapsulation of progressive social trends. Supported by quantitative data comparing dictionary searches and word occurrence in media across several years, these selections reflect our growing curiosity over gender identity and the increasing prominence of LGBTQ+ issues in public discourse.
In a public statement announcing their selection, the ADA stated that ‘they’ has ‘embodied’ the 2010s: ‘embodied’ is a choice word here, speaking to a desire to understand and represent the myriad forms of body and identity – expanding beyond the once clear-cut binary of male/female – that our species occupies. By celebrating a new definition of ‘they’, these groups are making a political statement affirming both the power of language to shape culture, and the increasing prominence of gender in cultural debate. Indeed, while we veer increasingly closer to the brink of climate catastrophe and world war, it is worth celebrating the huge progress in gender-related representation and rights over the past decade.
The quiet radicalism of ‘they’ being the word of the decade lies in its reshaping of one of the most common units of the English language (the 19th most used English word according to Collins Dictionary), in the process of which it accommodates a broadened understanding of what it means to be human, and the wide varieties of personhood, that can and should be included into the fold of humanity. The profundity of our cultural re-imagination of gender comes from exactly that inclusion. The recognition of a genderless singular pronoun is part of the creation of a new language that asserts the presence and equality of those who identify beyond the existing binary our culture has traditionally allowed – those who have, until recently, been excluded entirely from language and thus our shared discourse.
It is tempting to overlook the ability of a word to capture the mood of an era – words are, after all, the building blocks of communication, through which we shape our daily interactions, whether buying a cup of coffee or conducting a business meeting. But their ubiquity is exactly their power: language is our most vital and most human tool of connection, and by changing language at its most basic level through words, we gain the power to change cultural discourse and the conversations we have about representation. It goes without saying that there is huge progress to be made in the cultural and political treatment of transgender and gender non-binary individuals, who are still disproportionately affected by many issues like mental illness and violence. Vitally, however, it is only when representation is equally distributed that more urgent issues like healthcare, civil rights, and protections for vulnerable populations can ever be addressed.
Our social discourse over gender is undergoing rapid changes that, like the chicken and the egg, language both leads and reflects. As an increasing number of celebrities have publically identified as non-binary, such as singer Sam Smith and television personality Jonathan Van Ness, that conversation looks set to continue into the 2020s, hopefully with those most affected shaping it.
Image: via C2essentials