Merriam-Webster has added a “gender identity” definition of the word “they” to its dictionary, sparking concerns that social activism is already reshaping language.
Under the listing for “they,” Merriam-Webster has the usual three definition for the various contexts of the word, and then there’s the new fourth definition which states that “they” is “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
The dictionary also gives an example passage:
“I knew certain things about… the person I was interviewing… They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary — that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.
— Amy Harmon”
The new definition has renewed debate over how social activism is already having an impact on language.
“This tactic has been extraordinarily effective in shaping our politics,” wrote blogger Mark Pantano. “After all, those who control the language control the debate.”
And it’s beyond the issue at hand, in this case the transgender movement. The notion of shaping language to fit the current political climate was first touched upon in the novel 1984 in which the ruling Party tried to narrow the range of thought by narrowing actual vocabulary.
In fact, in the novel the Party is creating a new dictionary:
“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.
“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”
He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without
“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.”
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