Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine

They Is the Word of the Year for 2019. Are We Glad?

Trends in Them and TheyMerriam-Webster’s word of the year seems perfect for our time. On one hand, it’s very nice to see this humble word rise up from obscurity. English needs a gender neutral singular pronoun. So people are getting comfortable with they for this purpose. It’s also handy for people who want to specify a non-binary pronoun for themselves. In fact, that’s a big deal. Because the push to make language more flexible about gender is moving around the globe.

However, they and them have even broader implications. These words bring us to reflect on an uglier dimension of identity. The other. Them versus us. This is the plural sense of them and they.

Driven by Identity

Identity increasingly plays a role in every sort of political discussion. We’ve noted it here. We see tribes fighting for the moral high ground of nutrition. Vegans can be fierce advocates. So, too, can their detractors. Low- carb advocates are mounting a political campaign to influence the dietary guidelines. Identity plays in many of the fiercest debates about obesity, nutrition, and health.

On a more global basis, identity is driving much strife in politics. It’s impossible to miss in American politics. Many Brits want an identity distinct from Europe, so they’ve been fighting about Brexit for years now. Religious identity is at the heart of much strife in India. We could go on almost forever.

Thus, we are not surprised at all that they and them have rising prominence in our searches and in our language.

So Is They a Good Thing?

On balance we’re not so sure that the rise of they is good. On one hand, it’s great to have more inclusive and gender neutral language. On the other hand, we really don’t like labeling outgroups as them. The other. The threat. In that sense, they can be a tool for bias, exclusion, and sometimes hatred. Even violence.

Today we are celebrating the birth of someone who told us – as many religions do – to love our neighbors above all else. Our neighbors might be different. But they are us.

Click here for further perspective on the word of the year.

Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine, painting by Edvard Munch / WikiArt

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December 25, 2019

One Response to “They Is the Word of the Year for 2019. Are We Glad?”

  1. December 26, 2019 at 2:39 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Great – “ love our neighbors above all else. Our neighbors might be different. But they are us.”

    Thanks and Happy New Year!!!