Merriam-Webster Adds New Words for Identity and Race

Merriam-Webster Adds New Words for Identity and Race

September 24, 20192 min read

Merriam-Webster, publisher of language-related reference works, has announced new entries for words that address the complex ways individuals view themselves and others.

The publisher has expanded the pronoun they to include this sense: "used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary." It's an expansion of a use that is sometimes called the "singular they."

Shauna M. MacDonald, PhD, associate professor and co-director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at Villanova, says, "On the one hand, Merriam-Webster's addition of the nonbinary use of they should come as no surprise—many English speakers have adopted this usage in recent years, and it is recommended by various groups and resources focused on inclusive language. Language, meaning and accepted use are all ever-changing."

"On the other hand," Dr. MacDonald adds, "This shift is more important than it may seem to a casual reader or stickler for a mythical static sense of grammar. That’s because our language (and more broadly, our communication), creates the conditions for what is possible in our world. While none of us need the legitimation of a dictionary to agree upon the meanings of our communication, dictionaries have a legitimizing force, nonetheless. To have added this usage is akin to Merriam-Webster agreeing that (a) nonbinary folks exist and (b) they deserve to be called by their proper identity."

Two additional entries added to the dictionary are: a new definition of inclusive, in the sense of "allowing and accommodating people who have historically been excluded" (because of their race, gender, sexuality or ability); and the word colorism, or prejudice or discrimination—especially within a racial or ethnic group—favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.

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