What’s in a word? Clarity? Confusion? Consternation?
Merriam-Webster’s choice of “they” as the 2019 Word of the Year (WOTY) will likely engender all three (pardon my pun). The reference book publisher also added a new definition of “they” to its online dictionary: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
“Nonbinary” was also the runner-up for Dictionary.com’s 2019 WOTY, finishing behind “existential” in search volume statistics. But what, exactly, does nonbinary mean?
Basically, the word is used to describe someone whose gender identity isn’t exclusively male or female. But some people who identify as nonbinary describe themselves as neither male nor female, while others characterize themselves as both.
The concept, if not the term, has been recorded as far back as 2000 B.C. Creation myths in numerous cultures cite the origin of a third gender alongside — or beyond — male and female: the Hijras of India, the Androgynos of Israel, the mahus of Hawaii. In recent years, countries as diverse as Pakistan, Germany and Australia have changed their laws to allow citizens to identify as a third gender.
It’s easy for me to grasp the meaning of nonbinary, but the use of “they” as a singular pronoun confounds me. I agree that “it” (as in “he, she, or it”) is definitely not an acceptable option when referring to a person, but I just can’t get past my old-school sensibilities of plural vs. singular terms. There’s also the long-held use of the proverbial “they,” as in “They say . . .” Now, when someone says that, how can you tell whether “they” is an actual person, a group of people, or a generic reference to the majority?
Recently, I read that Japan uses the term “X-gender” to describe a person who is not expressly male or female. I propose we look into this. Seems to me that “xe” would be less confusing than “they.” The plural forms would be “xem” and “xey,” and the possessive form “xers” or “xes.” It’ll take some time to establish, but I think it’s preferable to the confusion over who “they” are. Or is.
In the meantime, I have another proposal, one that I made in this column a few years ago: We should establish a local WOTY, based on merit rather than internet searches. I would further propose that the Hawaii Word of Every Year should be “aloha.” After all, it is literally the law of our land, spelled out in the Hawaii Revised Statutes:
A — Akahai, meaning kindness, to be expressed with tenderness.
L — Lokahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony.
O — Oluolu, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness.
H — Ha’aha’a, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty.
A — Ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.
The “Aloha Spirit Law,” HRS 5-7.5 goes on to state, “These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians . . . ‘Aloha’ means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. ‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. ‘Aloha’ means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.”
No confusion there. Aloha is a word, a concept, a way of life that we all can embrace, regardless of gender identity. Wouldn’t xou agree?
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.