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Merriam-Webster Adds Non-Binary Definition of ‘They’ to Dictionary

A bathroom sign in Durham, N.C., in 2016. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Merriam-Webster has updated its dictionary with an additional definition of “they” reflecting the word’s increased usage as a pronoun that refers to those who conceive of themselves as neither male nor female, the company announced Monday on Twitter.

The word “they” now has four definitions on the Merriam-Webster website, including the latest addition, which describes “they” as “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

To use the word in a sentence, Merriam-Webster gives the following example: “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.”

The definition change comes as Oxford University Press editors consider updating the definition of “woman” across various publications in response to a change.org petition, according to the Bookseller.

The petition calls on OUP to remove example sentences with the word “woman” that contain offensive language or sexist stereotypes. For example, on one page of  an OUP-affiliated site, the word “bitch” is described as an offensive synonym for a woman.

Other examples taken from OUP publications and cited by the petition include “male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut,” and “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman.”

The authors also call on OUP to “include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.”

An OUP spokesperson commented to the Bookseller, “it’s worth reiterating that our dictionaries reflect rather than dictate how language is used which means that we include terms that are often considered pejorative or have negative historical associations.”

The petition currently has over 29,000 signatures.

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