Merriam-Webster Welcomes "they" Into the Nonbinary Crowd

James Gottry

Just days ago, Merriam-Webster announced it was adding 533 new words and meanings to the dictionary. Among other changes, readers can now find a ready definition for "dad joke" or "escape room," or be grammatically correct in the use of "vacay" rather than vacation. Sports enthusiasts will celebrate the acceptance of "pickleball" into the common vernacular, and those with an "abnormal fear of clowns" can now more easily proclaim their Coulrophobia.

But the change that perhaps will have the most lasting impact on our culture is the new definition for "they." Merriam-Webster has declared that the word can now be "used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary."

In other words, according to America's foremost repository of language, two's company, three's a crowd, but "they" can now travel solo.

Interestingly, Merriam-Webster states that there is evidence of a nonbinary use of "they" as far back as 1950. So why has it taken nearly 70 years to make the update? The rationale is significant:

Nonbinary they has a clear meaning; it's found in published text, in transcripts, and in general discourse; and its use has been steadily growing over the past decades. English speakers are encountering nonbinary they in social media profiles and in the pronoun stickers applied to conference badges. There's no doubt that it is an established member of the English language, which means that it belongs in Merriam-Webster's dictionaries. (Emphasis added)

Perhaps since Merriam-Webster deals in language, the company also provided a more concise explanation:

Words can come and go in a language, but those that show staying power and increasing use need to be recorded and described.

Who cares? Why does it matter that "they" is being increasingly accepted as a reference to an individual that doesn't self-identify as either gender?

I learned about this change via an insightful post by Albert Mohler, who notes that "[i]f you control language, you control the direction of the culture." This astute sentiment is not new; consider the words attributed to Saul Alinsky, often credited as the founder of modern community organizing: "He who controls the language controls the masses." A related, and foreboding, admonishment comes from George Orwell, who wrote in 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

Is it possible that he who controls the language controls everything?

If so, more changes might be coming. Mohler notes that "this particular change in the language is not a change toward greater specificity but lesser, not more clarity, but more confusion." Mohler makes a bold prediction as to how this confusion will eventually be resolved, stating that "[t]he gender and sexual revolutionaries will not be satisfied … until everyone, even those who are quite happy with 'he' and 'she' and 'his' and 'hers,' will have to be identified by 'they' and 'theirs.'"

Perhaps Mohler is right. Increasingly, our society is accepting a redefinition of human sexuality. Gender is derided as a "social construct." "Sexual orientation" has replaced God's design for human sexuality. Even the most basic physiological, neurological, and behavioral differences between men and women are denied.

If there are no distinctions in the new reality, why should there be distinctions in the new language?

This issue is not going away, but we will continue to advocate for the truth about men and women, about human sexuality, and yes—about language.

Words matter. Biological realities matter. The Truth matters.

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