By Esther Cepeda
CHICAGO — For the uninitiated, it will come as a bit of a surprise that the familiar pronoun “they” has been named Merriam-Webster’s word of the year.
No longer just another form of “them,” which we use to refer to two or more people, “they” has been crowned the official nonbinary pronoun of the English language.
Basically, it’s the word you’d use if you were to come upon a person — oh, let’s say ... me — and they sort of looked female, but they were dressed kind of like a guy (let’s say a NASA T-shirt, black skinny jeans, all-black Vans skateboarding shoes, no purse in sight).
Maybe I would be wearing only the barest hint of lipstick — despite the pretty picture of me at the top of most of my columns, I look nothing like that on a day-to-day basis. I never wear makeup and, guess what? I shaved most of my hair off.
So if you were standing in a busy checkout line of a grocery store in a suburban town and the small child with you loudly blurted out: “Hey, that man just dropped his gift card!” you might be embarrassed. You also might say, “Oh, we should tell them so that they don’t lose it.”
And the kid with you would think nothing of it. Zero. Today’s kids already live in a world where even rough-and-tumble 10-year-old boys who live on ranches will tell you, with incredulity that anyone would disagree, that “yeah, guys wear nail polish!” (I couldn’t have made this up even if I’d tried, by the way.)
My haircut isn’t nearly as edgy as those of some of the third-graders at the elementary schools where I’ve taught — and my hair isn’t even pink, green or purple.
Among young people, the idea that gender is a continuum, and not a binary limited only to male and female, is as normal as the air they breathe.
Some picture books in elementary schools already use the pronoun “they” for characters who have ambiguous gender. For that matter, some very popular books in classrooms openly hint at what it means to be nonbinary, or transgender, and treats the subject without judgment either way.
For us Generation X oldsters, using “they” and “them” instead of all the regular pronouns is uncomfortable because we’re not used to it.
Even people who are nonbinary and total grammar sticklers don’t particularly love it (yes, I’m speaking of myself here).
It just feels wrong.
But I persist even as I resist.
I struggle with labels — always have. I never wanted to be “a girl.” I hatehatehate being called a “Latina” and have been looked down upon by my less “colonized” Hispanic peers for the only label I’ve ever been proud of: American.
I’ve even voted for both Democrats and Republicans — and found myself a lonely, independent “moderate” in a time when politics is very starkly binary: “You’re either with us or against us!”
Now, I’m wary of labeling myself a “they/them” user because I don’t want anyone to think, “Oh, she’s one of those” before they even get to know me.
But times change, people change, the history of every language on earth is that it changes, too.
Back when the title “Ms.” for unmarried women in the workplace became common, some believed that insisting on being addressed as Ms. was a proclamation of militant feminism. Today, hardly anyone thinks that way.
If there’s anything that the average fully female and fully male person needs to know, it is that no one is cramming political correctness down anyone’s throat. It’s not like the grammar police are going to come and give you a ticket for not using “they” or “them” all the time.
But it is a little different if you know that someone in your life uses the terms “they/them.”
You’ll know it’s important to them if they specifically tell you they use those pronouns (it has gotten very common for people to put it in their email signature, wear pins on their clothes, or declare it when introduced).
If this happens to you, don’t sweat grammar, usage or political correctness — just be polite and show them respect.
Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.