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Words of the Year: ‘They,’ ‘Existential,’ ‘Climate Emergency’

Singer Sam Smith attends the premiere for the film "Judy" in Beverly Hills, California. Smith came out as nonbinary in September and asked to be referred to as "they" and "them," instead of "he."
Words of the Year: ‘They,’ ‘Existential,’ ‘Climate Emergency’
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This common pronoun is what Merriam-Webster chose for the word of 2019. For hundreds of years, “they” generally has meant more than one person. But increasingly, “they” is being used instead of “he” or “she” to describe a non-binary person – one who does not identify as male or female.

The dictionary company says it chose “they” because of a 313 percent increase this year in people looking it up on their site.

“I have to say it’s surprising to me,” said Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer and Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. “It’s a word we all know and love. So many people were talking about this word.”

Sokolowski and his team watch for spikes—or sharp increases—in word searches. Searches for “they” increased last January with the rise of model Oslo Grace. Grace, who uses the pronoun “they,” walks in both men’s and women’s fashion shows around the world.

Nick Adams is with the LGBTQ group GLAAD. He said Merriam-Webster’s choice is a positive step in recognizing non-binary people.

Editor Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press that “they,” one of a few non-binary pronouns to emerge in recent years, is “here to stay.”

Four years ago, Members of the American Dialect Society also voted for “they” as the word of the year.


Another language organization,, chose “existential” as the 2019 winner.

The adjective means connected to existence.

Here is an example:

“Is climate change an existential threat to humans?” In other words, does climate change threaten humans’ existence on Earth?

The choice shows how threats and crises -- real and thought about -- affected the world in 2019. John Kelly is senior research editor for the site. He says, “In our data, it speaks to this sense of grappling with our survival.”

The word showed up in searches at after wildfires, Hurricane Dorian and mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas. It also showed up in presidential politics and popular culture. It was even linked to “Forky” the white plastic spork and new star of the movie “Toy Story 4.”

People in costume as Bo Peep, Woody and Forky are seen at the premiere for "Toy Story 4" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 11, 2019
People in costume as Bo Peep, Woody and Forky are seen at the premiere for "Toy Story 4" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 11, 2019

Editor John Kelly explained that Forky asked “existential questions” – those that make us wonder about who we are and why we are alive. In the film, the dirty spork feels sure he will end up as waste. But then he accepts his purpose as a treasured toy of a young girl named Bonnie.

Climate emergency

Oxford Dictionaries picked “climate emergency” as its 2019 word. It noted that how often people use a word reflects the feelings or concerns of the passing year, the company said in a statement.

Other top words for 2019 included “quid pro quo,” “snitty,” and “exculpate.” They are ways to say “an exchange,” “disagreeable,” and “withdraw a charge of guilt.”

I’m Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story for Learning English with material from the Associated Press. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

What do you think of this story? Write to us in the comments section below.


Words in This Story

lexicographer – n. a person who compiles dictionaries

model – n. a person who is paid to wear clothing, jewelry, etc., in photographs, fashion shows, etc., so that people will see and want to buy what is being worn

LGBTQ – acronym. that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgnder , queer

grapple – v. to try to solve a problem or deal with a problem

spork – n. a utensil for eating that is a combination of a fork and a spoon