A recent New York Times article on Merriam-Webster’s including they as a third-person singular pronoun for a non-binary person included this sentence: “That the oldest dictionary publisher in the United States has added its imprimatur to this meaning of the pronoun could be seen as a powerful statement about evolving understandings of gender identity.”

Stop right there, New York Times.


An imprimatur (from the Latin “let it be published”) is an official license, as when the Roman Catholic Church certifies that a book does not conflict with official church teachings. This is not how dictionaries operate, not what lexicographers do. The dictionary is not the membership committee at the club, deciding who gets admitted and who gets blackballed, what is “official” in the language.

“Dictionary Wars,” a post at language: a feminist guide, says that this imprimatur sense is one of the most common public misconceptions about dictionaries: that “the decision to include a word or sense in a dictionary is effectively an endorsement of that word or sense. It communicates that the word or sense is real, correct and should be used by everyone. “

Allied to that is a misconception about lexicographers, the members of this supposed membership committee for English: “The makers of dictionaries have absolute power to decide what words really mean, and they use that power selectively.” People who think this are the people who try to lobby dictionaries to get words included, or who imagine that lexicographers’ decision reflect a political agenda.

One person irritated by Merriam-Webster over they announced that he would shun their products and stick with the OED (because the Oxford English Dictionary is British and thus more reliable?). He’s in for a shock, because the OED’s lexicographers do the same thing. If they have not yet updated the they entry to include this recent usage, they will in time.

What lexicographers do is quite different from an arm of the Illuminati manipulating the language and instructing you what is licit. Merriam-Webster’s people are simply chasing the English language, trying to find out what words mean, where they come from, how they are spelled, and how they are pronounced, so you can look them up and find out. That’s it.

And rather than rush headlong into new words or new usages of old words, they wait and sift through sources until they can see that a new word or usage has gained some traction in English. They aren’t giddy.

English doesn’t care whether you like a word or not, and neither do lexicographers. They just want to explain words for you. Then you can make your own decisions. Merriam-Webster is not going to send goons to your house to pistol-whip you until you agree to say snuck.

You may be hungry for Authority, as for that English teacher who long ago drilled you on the Rules, many of them bogus. You may be looking for Certainties about language. I’m sure that the dictionary is terribly sorry that you will have to work things out for yourself.