When Dictionaries Wade Into the Gender (Non)Binary

When Dictionaries Wade Into the Gender (Non)Binary

Inspo. Dad joke. Fabulosity! Rhotic. These are among the 533 new terms and definitions that Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary this month.

But none has drawn as much attention as the quotidian pronoun “they,” to which Merriam-Webster has added a new sense, or meaning: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” (Nonbinary people do not identify as either male or female.)

Meanwhile, in a separate lexicological dispute, tens of thousands of people are petitioning the Oxford Dictionary of English to strike derogatory synonyms from its definition of “woman.”

Both episodes made headlines this week, pointing to the enduring relevance of dictionaries — old arbiters of fundamental meaning that are now engaging the public not only with books, but also via apps and (occasionally cheeky) Twitter timelines.

[Read more about dictionaries on Twitter and the perils of politicization.]

Merriam-Webster’s move, announced on Tuesday, reflects the fact that many nonbinary people use “they” as their singular third-person pronoun instead of “she” or “he.” (As an example of usage, the entry cites a June article in The New York Times.)

That the oldest dictionary publisher in the United States has added its imprimatur to this meaning of the pronoun could be seen as a powerful statement about evolving understandings of gender identity.

Or it could be seen as something much more elementary: a reflection of changing times.

The dictionary, after all, is more of a rearview mirror than a vanguard of change, said Peter Sokolowski, an editor and lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.

“If we see that a term is used frequently, then it’s going to get into the dictionary,” Mr. Sokolowski said. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if it weren’t reflecting the truth of the way language is used.”

Still, a major dictionary can add credibility to an existing term or definition, said Laura A. Jacobs, a therapist in New York who focuses on L.G.B.T.Q. clients and whose preferred pronouns include she, he and they — or none at all.

“I think this is a sign of the times,” Mx. Jacobs said. “They’re acknowledging that this is a term that is in widespread use, and it’s a term that’s important to many people.”

The American Heritage Dictionary also mentions gender in its definition of “they,” noting that it can be “used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.” Both Lexico (which is affiliated with the Oxford Dictionary of English) and Dictionary.com mention the nonbinary use of “they” only in their usage notes for the term.

In the United States, the Merriam-Webster dictionary is particularly prominent, said Bryan A. Garner, a lexicographer and the author of “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” which is published by Oxford University Press.

It’s good at marketing, too. “These publicity campaigns seem to be pretty successful, in the sense of frequently making front-page news in national newspapers,” Mr. Garner said.

Some pop culture news last week made Merriam-Webster’s announcement seem especially apposite; on Sept. 13, the British singer and four-time Grammy winner Sam Smith, who had been referred to as “he,” announced that they were changing their pronouns to “they/them.”

“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am,” they wrote on Twitter.

“When prominent people make these changes, more people notice,” Mr. Sokolowski said. “And that accelerates the change, too.”

[Read more about people who identify as nonbinary.]

Reactions to the nonbinary meaning of “they” have been mixed, with some critics saying it’s awkward to use the word as a singular pronoun. But Mr. Sokolowski said English speakers already use the singular “they” even when they are not referring to nonbinary people. (As in: “No one has to go if they don’t want to.”)

In that sense, the singular “they” has been in use for more than 600 years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that is distinct from the more modern Oxford Dictionary of English.

Mr. Sokolowski added that languages change all the time, and objections to those transmutations — however loud they may be in the moment — are eventually forgotten. He said the evolution of “they” is something like what happened to “you” centuries ago, when it drifted from plural to singular, nudging “thee” and “thou” into Elizabethan obscurity.

Mr. Garner challenged that comparison. “This nonbinary ‘they’ is a very conscious linguistic change that has resulted from a kind of social movement,” he said, comparing it instead to the campaign, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the late 1980s, to popularize the term “African-American.”

If using the word “they” to describe a nonbinary person feels difficult, Mx. Jacobs said, it’s important to remember that it is a sign of respect. “Choosing not to work on it means you’re O.K. with harming that other person,” they added.

The tension over whether dictionaries are reflective or prescriptive erupted in a different way across the Atlantic, with a petition questioning whether, or when, historic terms should be stricken from the record.

Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, a women’s rights activist in the United Kingdom, said Merriam-Webster’s announcement seemed like a positive step. But she has focused her ire on another major dictionary: the Oxford Dictionary of English.

Ms. Giovanardi said that in January, she looked up the word “woman” on Google, which draws from Oxford’s dictionaries when people ask the search engine to define a word.

She noted that the synonyms included terms like “biddy,” “wench,” and “piece.” (In the screenshots she shared online, the Google search result classified those words, respectively, as “informal,” “archaic” and “derogatory.”) And she noted that in an online version of the Oxford Dictionary of English, examples for the usage of “woman” included phrases like “one of his sophisticated London women.”

Her petition has lately begun to pick up steam because of news media exposure, she said. As of Thursday morning, about 30,000 people had signed it.

Reached for comment, a spokeswoman for Oxford University Press referred to a blog post by Katherine Connor Martin, the head of lexical content strategy.

“These texts are based on the methodologies of descriptive, corpus-based lexicography, meaning that editors analyze large quantities of evidence from real-life use to determine the meanings of words,” the post said. “If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory.”

But Ms. Giovanardi said the injudicious material should be removed or replaced. “I think that the dictionary should be a place without all of these biases,” she said.

Oxford is taking the points raised in the petition very seriously, a spokeswoman said, and researching possible uses of “woman” that are not yet covered in the dictionary.

For Merriam-Webster, which seems to precipitate news headlines every time it rolls out fresh batches of new terms, the flurry of attention evinces an enduring interest in denotation, Mr. Sokolowski said.

“If we both agree on what, for example, ‘socialism’ means, or what ‘fact’ means, then we can move forward even if we’re on opposite sides of an argument,” he added. “If we can agree on terms, then we can make some progress. That is a role I think the dictionary has always played. It’s just simply amplified now by the speed of communication.”

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