American dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster has recognised the use of the word “they” in the singular to refer to a person who does not want to be identified as either male or female. The dictionary added this as the fourth meaning in its word entry for “they” on Tuesday.
In a blog post, Merriam-Webster noted that the use of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun has been consistent since the late 1300s but its use as a “pronoun of choice” for someone with non-binary gender identity is new, the publisher said.
“This is a different use than the traditional singular ‘they’, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context...” Merriam-Webster said. “The new use of ‘they’ is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun ‘they’, I would say, ‘This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work’.”
This comes at a time when authorities in the United States are increasingly recognising the need for systems to help non-binary persons identify themselves. According to the Washington Post, governments in the District of Columbia, California and New York have begun offering a gender option of “X” on identification cards.
This was among 533 new words and meanings the dictionary added online in its latest updates on Tuesday. The new words included “deep state”, “vacay”, “Bechdel test” and “solopreneur”.
“Deep state” was defined as “an alleged secret governmental network operating extralegally”, “vacay” is short for “vacation”, and “solopreneur” is a portmanteau of “solo” and “entrepreneur”. “Bechdel test” refers to criteria used to evaluate a work of fiction, such as a film, on the basis of its inclusion and representation of female characters.