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Published: 19 November 2015

When is a word not a word?

Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji as its 2015 Word of the Year, the first time a symbol has been included. Professor Diane Watt, Head of the School of English and Languages explores what this means for the English language and highlights the positive impact of another of the shortlisted words.

According to Oxford Dictionaries’ annual survey of Britain’s changing language, the ‘tears of joy’ emoji was crowned Word of the Year thanks to its popularity on social media and instant messaging.

It is the first time the list has included an entry that is not a word, and this has led to some negative commentary – including rather dramatic (and tongue-in-cheek) claims that this is the final nail in the coffin of Western civilization.

But does it really matter that the Word of the Year is not actually a word? After all, language is dynamic, not static, and emojis are just another facet of communication.

Would we be so troubled if the Oxford Dictionaries had chosen a punctuation mark, such as the apostrophe, or the sign for ‘love’ in British Sign Language (flat hands crossed over the left side of the chest)?

Perhaps we should be congratulating the Oxford Dictionaries for celebrating the inventiveness of the English-speaking world, which has creatively borrowed the emoji from Japanese?

The ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji captures the zeitgeist of a world in which social media replaces direct interpersonal contact. This is a world in which emotions - laughter, sorrow, grief, even horror - are shared publically.

But it is also a world in which ideograms, like acronyms (such as ‘lol’), can come in and out of fashion very quickly. Will this ‘Word (or ideogram) of the Year’ still be widely in use in twelve months’ time?

The positive impact of ‘they’

they (singular), pronoun: used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.

‘They’, another of the shortlisted Words of the Year, has a longer history, and, I suggest, a longer future. This usage has been around for decades, even centuries, and it is one that I personally favour (over, s/he for example).

It is a useful solution to what Casey Miller and Kate Swift called ‘The Pronoun Problem’ in their Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers, originally published in 1981; a great way to avoid having to use ‘he’ as if it were gender neutral (which it is not, and can never be).

While pedants are still appalled that a Professor of English should break grammatical rules in this way, even my own University advocates this usage in its style guidelines.

So why, then, was ‘they’ shortlisted as a Word of the Year? Well many public documents still seem to assume that they are only addressing men, and I for one find that alienating.

But that is only part of the story. Another reason must be our growing awareness of the difficulties faced by the trans community. For transgender, and intersex, and genderqueer people, pronouns are fraught business - it can be deeply offensive to be referred to as ‘she’ if one identifies as male, and vice versa.

Nowadays some public events, such as conferences, give people the opportunity to specify, on their name badges, which gendered pronouns others should use when addressing them. I think that is a great step forward.

But, in the meantime, when we don’t know exactly whom we are addressing, let’s avoid making any assumptions at all about their gender.

Miller and Swift cite a long list of famous authors who use ‘they’ as a singular: Oliver Goldsmith, George Eliot, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Ruskin, George Bernard Shaw, Elizabeth Bowen, Lawrence Durrell, and Doris Lessing.

If ‘they’ is good enough for a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is good enough for me.

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