They: A ‘Powerful and Helpful’ Word

Faculty; Social Work

Merriam-Webster has chosen “they” as the 2019 Word of the Year, a move applauded by an expert on gender transitions in later life at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In my research, I’ve found that many transgender people have a love/hate relationship with language,” said Vanessa Fabbre, assistant professor at the Brown School.

“In some cases, it’s really empowering when a new word or usage helps to articulate one’s sense of themself, but in other cases language can be restrictive and ill-fitting,” said Fabbre, whose latest research paper focuses on the state of theory in LGBTQ aging.

“Many of the older adults I’ve interviewed have witnessed several historical eras in which gender expansiveness is conveyed differently through language,” she said.

The surge in acceptance of the singular “they” in contemporary English is a great example of a new era, Fabbre said, “one brought about through persistent activism on the part of transgender and gender expansive people.

“I personally love the singular ‘they’ for all kinds of reasons, but mostly for its ability to convey and respect non-binary personhood. It’s a powerful and helpful word!”