MCCALEB: Merriam-Webster Has Named ‘They’ Its Word Of The Year, But The Battle Over Pronouns Is Older Than You Think

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Gary McCaleb Alliance Defending Freedom
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“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Spanish philosopher George Santayana said at the dawn of the 20th century.

When it comes to the power of pronouns, there’s more truth in that phrase than you may realize — a reality well worth visiting now that Merriam-Webster named the nonbinary pronoun “they” as its word of the year.

By the winter of 1936, Europe was spinning rapidly toward world conflict, driven largely by a disturbing fascination with fascism. So it was that Eric Blair, a gangling young Englishman, volunteered to fight fascism in Spain after right-wing Spanish fascists rebelled against their left-leaning government. In this run-up to the Second World War, the government found support from an uneasy coalition of anti-fascist socialists, communists, and anarchists. Outside powers played it as a proxy war, with Germany supporting the rebels and Russia supporting the anti-fascists.

Eric cared more about who he fought against than who he fought beside, and readily joined a communist group. As he prepared for combat, he noted one oddity: the communists permitted only the use of informal pronouns—thus recognizing the favored working-class proletariat — while forbidding the use of formal pronouns that typically applied to the capitalist bourgeoisie.

But the fascist rebels were winning even as the anti-fascist groups fell into disarray. Soviet-backed Stalinists tried to revitalize the movement by seizing control of the anti-fascist groups. But they did so with such brutality that while Eric came to Spain to fight fascism with the sword, he left ready to fight totalitarian Stalinism with something even more powerful — his pen.

And it is by his pen name that we know him: George Orwell, author of “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

The communists knew that pronouns were important — so important that they used them as weapons in the Spanish Civil War. And now pronouns are being weaponized again, this time to redefine mankind as a sexless species, where any individual may claim a “gender” that is more or less masculine, feminine, some of either, or neither. And where gender identity ideology has gained political favor, gender identity laws may now force all others to affirm a person’s private, subjective perceptions no matter how far those perceptions may be from objective reality.

This profoundly impacts society and citizens: use the “wrong” pronoun, and your business may be bankrupted, or you may be jailed.

Just how important pronouns are was proven again in 2000, when the American Dialect Society met not only to select their annual “Word of the Year,” but to choose the “Word of the Millennium.” That millennium-marking word was to be the “one word that has been so significant, and so characteristic and so fundamental” in influencing the world for a thousand years.

So, what was that word?


“She” won out because before about 1100, the English language referred to women only by an insignificant variant of the male pronoun. That reflected cultural and legal norms making women subservient to — and even wholly merged with — a man’s identity (typically their husband’s). But the emergence of the uniquely feminine “she” proved to be a catalyst in the centuries-long journey to bring women into their own as legal entities and as humans.

Now, gender identity ideologists are erasing women when they demand that a male be deemed a “she.” But such demands quickly come into conflict with Americans of sound conscience and good faith who will not abandon their principles.

There is Shawnee State University philosophy professor Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, who was quite willing to accommodate a male student who wanted to use a feminine first name. But to use incorrect pronouns was something else: it is no small philosophical matter to reject the objective reality that humans are innately male or female, and to reject the idea that our language should reflect reality. And these ideas are no less important to Meriwether’s Christian faith.

Much the same thing happened to Peter Vlaming, fired by his West Point, Virginia school after he offered to accommodate a female student who claimed a masculine identity, but drew the line at using incorrect pronouns for her. To Peter, it was one thing to use a student’s chosen first name. It is another to ignore the objective reality that the student was female and refer to her as a male.

One might expect that such a conflict within a philosophy class would lead to deep, bracing discussions of the nature of mankind as a sexed species. But no: again, the government reprimanded Meriwether when he declined to affirm a false notion and is threatening further punishment unless he relents.

Therein lies the peril. Certainly, we should approach those with whom we disagree with courtesy and grace. But neither the government, nor those with whom we disagree, should have the power to force us to speak against our conscience, or compel us to promote a new gender orthodoxy.

Animal Farm and 1984 showed a great truth through fiction; that a government that crushes individual conscience and forces its citizens to affirm false reality is toxic to freedom.

Gary McCaleb served as senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom starting in 2002 until retiring in 2019.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.