Words matter — especially to those at the American Dialect Society. So it spoke volumes when the top linguists who make up the group voted to crown the singular pronoun “they” as the Word of the Decade at its annual meeting on Friday.
The other contenders in the category included #BlackLivesMatter, climate, #MeToo, meme, emoji, opiod crisis, selfie, and woke, according to the society’s official Twitter account. It initially came down to a runoff between “meme” (at 110 votes) and “they” (128), with only singular votes cast for “emoji” and “opioid crisis.”
The prominence of “meme” came a bit as a surprise, since the phenomenon of memes was certainly not exclusive to the decade. Early examples of widely spread memes like the “can has cheezburger” cat date back to 2007. To be fair, memes certainly became a more mainstream mainstay in the recent past.
“They” ultimately feels like the more decade-appropriate winner, however, since some of the biggest gatekeepers of the English language officially accepted it in the past 10 years, like when the American Psychological Association officially added it to their guidebook and Merriam Webster named it their 2019 Word of the Year. Another member of the society, Kirby Conrod, spoke to how “they” was the only entry on the list that also doubled as a major grammatical change.
In Mashable’s own list of words and phrases that defined the decade, the singular “they” was also highlighted along with other inclusivity-related words like “nonbinary” and “genderqueer.”
Though the American Dialect Society was founded in the 19th century, only two other words have ever been selected for the Word of the Decade honor. “Web” won the 1990s, while the verb “Google” reigned over the 2000s.
Entries for the 2019 Word of the Year included “OK Boomer,” “(my) pronouns,” “cancel,” and “Karen.” Ultimately, “OK Boomer” was the runner up at 88 votes and “(my) pronouns” won with 161. “(My) pronouns” refer to a practice of telling people how to refer to you. Phrases such as she/her, he/him, or they/them could be seen popping up on online profiles throughout 2019.
Notably, both the year and decade winners reflect the enormous impact our evolving lexicon around gender identity has had on the American language and society.
UPDATE: Jan. 5, 2020, 10: 49 a.m. PST An earlier version of this story misidentified Blake Zimmer as a member of the American Dialect Society