Merriam-Webster declares 'they' its 2019 word of the year

NEW YORK (AP) — A common but increasingly mighty and very busy little word, “they,” has an accolade all its own.

The language mavens at Merriam-Webster have declared the personal pronoun their word of the year based on a 313 percent increase in look-ups on the company's search site,, this year when compared with 2018.

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

Sokolowski and his team monitor spikes in searches and “they” got an early start last January with the rise of model Oslo Grace on top fashion runways. The Northern Californian identifies as transgender nonbinary, walking in both men's and women's shows around the world.

Winning words from every National Spelling Bee since 1925
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Winning words from every National Spelling Bee since 1925

Koinonia (2018)

  • Speller: Karthik Nemmani
  • Definition: The Christian fellowship or body of believers

Marocain (2017)

  • Speller: Ananya Vinay
  • Definition: A dress fabric of ribbed crepe, made of silk or wool or both.

Feldenkrais and Gesellschaft (2016)


  • Speller: Jairam Hathwar
  • Definition: used for a system of aided body movements intended to increase body awareness and ease tension.


  • Speller: Nihar Janga
  • Definition: a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nunatak and Scherenschnitte (2015)


  • Speller: Gokul Venkatachalam
  • Definition: a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.


  • Speller: Vanya Shivashankar
  • Definition: the art of cutting paper into decorative designs.


Feuilleton and Stichomythia (2014)


  • Speller: Ansun Sujoe
  • Definition: a part of a European newspaper or magazine devoted to material designed to entertain the general reader : a feature section.


  • Speller: Sriram Hathwar
  • Definition: dialogue especially of altercation or dispute delivered in alternating lines (as in classical Greek drama).
(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Knaidel (2013)

  • Speller: Arvind Mahankali
  • Definition: a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming (as with soup, stew or fruit with which it is to be served) : a dumpling.
(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Guetapens (2012)

  • Speller: Snigdha Nandipati
  • Definition: an ambush : a snare : a trap.
(Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images)

Cymotrichous (2011)

  • Speller: Sukanya Roy
  • Definition: having the hair wavy.
(REUTERS/Molly Riley)

Stromuhr (2010)

  • Speller: Anamika Veeramani
  • Definition: an instrument for measuring the flow of viscous substances designed to measure the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery.
(Photo by Astrid Riecken/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Laodicean (2009)

  • Speller: Kavya Shivashankar
  • Definition: lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Guerdon (2008)

  • Speller: Sameer Mishra
  • Definition: something that one has earned or gained : a reward : a recompense : a requital.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Autochthonous (2004)

  • Speller: David Tidmarsh
  • Definition: indigenous, native, aboriginal—used especially of floras and faunas.
(Photo by Saul Loeb/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Appoggiatura (2005)

  • Speller: Anurag Kashyap
  • Definition: an accessory embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a note of smaller size.
(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Serrefine (2007)

  • Speller: Evan M. O'Dorney
  • Definition: a small forceps for clamping a blood vessel.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ursprache (2006)

  • Speller:Katharine Close
  • Definition: a parent language; especially : one reconstructed from the evidence of later languages.

(Photo by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Pococurante (2003)

  • Speller: Sai R. Gunturi
  • Definition: not concerned : indifferent : nonchalant.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Prospicience (2002)

  • Speller: Pratyush Buddiga
  • Definition: the act of looking forward : foresight.
(SHAWN THEW/AFP/Getty Images)

Succedaneum (2001)

  • Speller: Sean Conley
  • Definition: one that comes next after or replaces another in an office, position or role.

(Reuters Photographer / Reuters)

Demarche (2000)

  • Speller: George Abraham Thampy
  • Definition: any formal or informal representation or statement of views to a public official.

Logorrhea (1999)

  • Speller: Nupur Lala
  • Definition: pathologically excessive and often incoherent talkativeness.
(MARIO TAMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Chiaroscurist (1998)

  • Speller: Jody-Anne Maxwell
  • Definition: an artist who uses the arrangement or treatment of the light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art.
(Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Euonym (1997)

  • Speller: Rebecca Sealfon
  • Definition: a name well suited to the person, place or thing named.


Vivisepulture (1996)

  • Speller: Wendy Guey
  • Definition: the act or process of burying alive.

(Travis HEYING/AFP/Getty Images)

Xanthosis (1995)

  • Speller: Justin Tyler Carroll
  • Definition: a yellow discoloration of the skin from abnormal causes.

(JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Antediluvian (1994)

  • Speller: Ned G. Andrews
  • Definition: of or relating to the period before the Flood described in the Bible.

(Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Kamikaze (1993)

  • Speller: Geoff Hooper
  • Definition: a member of a Japanese air attack corps in World War II assigned to make a suicidal crash on a target (as a ship).

Lyceum (1992)

  • Speller: Amanda Goad
  • Definition: a place for holding lectures or public discussions.
(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Antipyretic (1991)

  • Speller: Joanne Lagatta
  • Definition: preventing, removing or allaying fever.

Fibranne (1990)

  • Speller: Amy Marie Dimak
  • Definition: a fabric made of spun-rayon yarn.
(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Spoliator (1989)

  • Speller: Scott Isaacs
  • Definition: one that forcefully takes what is valuable from a place.
(Photo By Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Elegiacal (1988)

  • Speller: Rageshree Ramachandran
  • Definition: expressing sorrow or lamentation often for something now past : plaintive, nostalgic, melancholy.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Staphylococci (1987)

  • Speller: Stephanie Petit
  • Definition: a genus of nonmotile spherical eubacteria that occur singly, in pairs or tetrads and comprise a few parasites of skin and mucous membranes.

Odontalgia (1986)

  • Speller: Jon Pennington
  • Definition: toothache.

(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Milieu (1985)

  • Speller: Balu Natarajan
  • Definition: environment, setting.

(Handout . / Reuters) 

Luge (1984)

  • Speller: Daniel Greenblatt
  • Definition: a small sled used for coasting especially in Switzerland.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Purim (1983)

  • Speller: Blake Giddens
  • Definition: a Jewish festival celebrated on the 14th of Adar in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman.

Psoriasis (1982)

  • Speller: Molly Dieveney
  • Definition: a chronic skin disease characterized by circumscribed red patches covered with white scales.

Sarcophagus (1981)

  • Speller: Paige Pipkin
  • Definition: a coffin made of stone, often ornamented with sculpture, and usually placed in a church, tomb or vault.

(Pete Marovich/MCT via Getty Images)

Elucubrate (1980)

  • Speller: Jacques Bailly -- he now serves as the official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee
  • Definition: to work out or express by studious effort.
(Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Maculature (1979)

  • Speller: Katie Kerwin
  • Definition: an impression made from an intaglio engraved plate to remove ink from the recessed areas.

Deification (1978)

  • Speller: Peg McCarthy
  • Definition: the act or an instance of glorifying or exalting as of supreme worth or excellence.
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Cambist (1977)

  • Speller: John Paola
  • Definition: one who deals in bills of exchange or who is skilled in the science and practice of exchange.

Narcolepsy (1976)

  • Speller: Tim Kneale
  • Definition: a condition characterized by a transient compulsive tendency to attacks of deep sleep.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Incisor (1975)

  • Speller: Hugh Tosteson
  • Definition: a tooth adapted for cutting, especially one of the cutting teeth in mammals arising from the premaxillary bone of the upper jaw in front of the canines.

Hydrophyte (1974)

  • Speller: Julie Ann Junkin
  • Definition: a plant requiring an abundance of water for growth and growing in water or in soil too waterlogged for most other plants to survive.

(Pete Marovich/MCT via Getty Images)

Vouchsafe (1973)

  • Speller: Barrie Trinkle
  • Definition: choose to give by way of reply.
(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images )

Macerate (1972)

  • Speller: Robin Kral
  • Definition: to cause (solid matter) to become soft or separated into constituent elements by steeping in fluid.

Shalloon (1971)

  • Speller: Jonathan Knisely
  • Definition: a lightweight twilled fabric of wool or worsted used chiefly for linings of coats and uniforms.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Croissant (1970)

  • Speller: Libby Childress
  • Definition: a rich crescent-shaped roll.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Interlocutory (1969)

  • Speller: Susan Yoachum
  • Definition: of or belonging to an interruptive speech or question.
(Photo by Bill Clark/Getty Images)

Abalone (1968)

  • Speller: Robert L. Walters
  • Definition: a gastropod mollusk that clings to rocks tenaciously with a broad muscular foot and that has a nacre-lined shell perforated with a row of apertures.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Chihuahua (1967)

  • Speller: Jennifer Reinke
  • Definition: a very small round-headed large-eared short-coated dog reputed to predate Aztec civilization.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Ratoon (1966)

  • Speller: Robert A. Wake
  • Definition: a stalk or shoot arising from the root or crown of a perennial plant.

Eczema (1965)

  • Speller: Michael Kerpan Jr.
  • Definition: an acute or chronic noncontagious inflammatory condition of the skin that is characterized by redness, itching and vesicular lesions.
(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Sycophant (1964)

  • Speller: William Kerek
  • Definition: a base or servilely attentive flatterer and self-seeker.

Equipage (1963)

  • Speller: Glen Van Slyke III
  • Definition: material or articles used in equipping an organized group.
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Esquamulose (1962)

  • Speller: Nettie Crawford and Michael Day
  • Definition: not covered with or consisting of minute scales.

Smaragdine (1961)

  • Speller: John Capehart
  • Definition: of or relating to emerald : yellowish green in color like an emerald.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Eudaemonic (1960)

  • Speller: Henry Feldman
  • Definition: producing happiness : based on the idea of happiness as the proper end of conduct.

Catamaran (1969)

  • Speller: Joel Montgomery
  • Definition: a fast pleasure boat having two hulls joined by a framework that supports the mast or motor.
(Pete Marovich/MCT via Getty Images)

Syllepsis (1958)

  • Speller: Jolitta Schlehuber
  • Definition: the use of a word as an adjective or verb in grammatical agreement with only one of two nouns by which it is governed.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Schappe (1957)

  • Speller: Sandra Owen and Dana Bennett
  • Definition: a yarn or fabric of spun silk.

(Photo by Bill Clark/Getty Images)

Condominium (1956)

  • Speller: Melody Sachko
  • Definition: a building containing individually owned apartments.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Crustaceology (1955)

  • Speller: Sandra Sloss
  • Definition: a branch of zoology that treats of animals of a class of marine or freshwater arthropods.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Transept (1954)

  • Speller: William Cashore
  • Definition: the part lying or passing across a cross-shaped church that crosses at right angles to the greatest length.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Soubrette (1953)

  • Speller: Elizabeth Hess
  • Definition: a lady's maid in comedies who acts the part of a coquettish maidservant or frivolous young woman.

Vignette (1952)

  • Speller: Doris Ann Hall
  • Definition: a picture (as an engraving or photograph) that shades off gradually into the surrounding ground or the unprinted paper.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Insouciant (1951)

  • Speller: Irving Belz
  • Definition: exhibiting or characterized by an attitude of indifference especially to the impression created on others.

Meticulosity (1950)

  •  Speller: Diana Reynard and Colquitt Dean
  • Definition: the quality or state of being extremely careful in the consideration or treatment of details.

(Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Dulcimer (1949)

  • Speller: Kim Calvin
  • Definition: a wire-stringed instrument of trapezoidal shape that is played with light hammers held in the hands.

Psychiatry (1948)

  • Speller: Jean Chappelear
  • Definition: a branch of medicine that deals with the science and practice of treating mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.
(Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images)

Chlorophyll (1947)

  • Speller: Mattie Lou Pollard
  • Definition: the green coloring material of plants that is essential to photosynthesis.

Semaphore (1946)

  • Speller: John McKinney
  • Definition: a system of visual signaling (as between ships) in which the sender holds a flag in each hand and moves his arms to different positions according to a code alphabet.
(Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There was no Scripps National Spelling Bee during the World War II years of 1943–45.

(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Sacrilegious (1942)

  • Speller: Richard Earnhart
  • Definition: characterized by or involving the unworthy or irreverent use of sacred persons, places, or things.

Initials (1941)

  • Speller: Louis Edward Sissman
  • Definition: the first letters of an individual's name and surname
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Therapy (1940)
  • Speller: Laurel Kuykendall
  • Definition: treatment of disease in animals or plants.
(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Canonical (1939)

  • Speller: Elizabeth Ann Rice
  • Definition: given wide acceptance : sanctioned, orthodox, authoritative.

Sanitarium (1938)

  • Speller: Marian Richardson
  • Definition: an institution for rest and recuperation.

Promiscuous (1937)

  • Speller: Waneeta Beckley
  • Definition: casual, careless, irregular, random.
(Photo by Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Interning (1936)

  • Speller: Jean Trowbridge
  • Definition: confining within prescribed limits especially during a war.

Intelligible (1935)

  • Speller: Clara Mohler
  • Definition: capable of being understood or comprehended.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Deteriorating (1934)

  • Speller: Sarah Wilson
  • Definition: becoming worse in quality, state, or condition.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Torsion (1933)

  • Speller: Alma Roach
  • Definition: the act of turning or twisting.

Knack (1932)

  • Speller: Dorothy Greenwald
  • Definition: a special ready capacity that is hard to analyze or teach.
(Photo by Robert Giroux/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Foulard (1931)

  • Speller: Ward Randall
  • Definition: a lightweight plainwoven or twilled silk usually printed with a small neat evenly spaced pattern.

Fracas (1930)

  • Speller: Helen Jensen
  • Definition: a noisy quarrel : brawl, fight, altercation.
(Photo by Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Asceticism (1929)

  • Speller: Virginia Hogan
  • Definition: rigorous abstention from self-indulgence.

Albumen (1928)

  • Speller: Betty Robinson
  • Definition: the white of an egg.

(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

 Luxuriance (1927)

  • Speller: Dean Lucas
  • Definition: the quality or state of being exuberantly rich and varied.
(Photo by Astrid Riecken/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Cerise (1926)

  • Speller: Pauline Bell
  • Definition: a moderate red that is slightly darker than claret, slightly lighter than harvard crimson, very slightly bluer and duller than average strawberry, and bluer and very slightly lighter than Turkey red.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Gladiolus (1925)

  • Speller: Frank Neuhauser
  • Definition: any plant of a genus of plants native chiefly to Africa with a few native to Europe and Asia that have sword-shaped leaves and spikes of brilliantly colored irregular flowers.
(Photo by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Another look-up spike occurred in April, when U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, got emotional while talking of her gender-nonconforming child during a House committee hearing as she advocated for LGBTQ rights legislation.

Merriam-Webster recently added a new definition to its online dictionary to reflect use of “they” as relating to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary. In October, the American Psychological Association endorsed “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in its latest style guide for scholarly writing.

“We believe writers should try to use a person's self-identified pronoun whenever feasible,” said Jasper Simons, chief publishing officer for the APA. “The singular ‘they’ is a way for writers to avoid making assumptions about gender when it is not known.”

The American Dialect Society, which is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, named “they” its word of the year for 2015, in recognition of its emergence among people who reject “he” and “she.”

In September, Merriam-Webster experienced another big increase in look-ups for “they”when pop star Sam Smith wrote on social media that their preferred pronouns were “they” and “them." Smith said the decision came after a “lifetime of being at war with my gender."

Sokolowski told The Associated Press that “they,” one of a handful of nonbinary pronouns to emerge in recent years, is “here to stay.” Nick Adams, director of transgender representation for the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said Merriam-Webster's choice is a positive step in acknowledging nonbinary people.

“There is a long road ahead before language, policy and culture are completely affirming and inclusive,” Adams said.

And the Merriam-Webster runners-up?

They include “quid pro quo,” “impeach” and "crawdad,” the latter a word in the title of Delia Evans best-selling novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing.” The Top 10 also included “egregious,” “clemency" and “the,” a shocker of a look-up spike when The Ohio State University attempted to patent the word to protect its turf. It failed.

Also in the mix: “snitty,” which emerged on the lips of Attorney General William Barr in reference to a letter by Robert Mueller about a summary Barr wrote of the Mueller report.

We have Washington Post columnist George Will to thank for “tergiversation.” The word, meaning an evasion or a desertion, was Merriam-Webster's top look-up on Jan. 24 after Will used it in a column in reference to Lindsey Graham.

The words “camp” and “exculcate” rounded out the Top 10 list.

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