Photo/IllutrationMerriam-Webster declared the personal pronoun "they" their word of the year based on a 313 percent increase this year in look-ups on the company's search site, Merriam-Webster.com, compared with 2018. Photo taken Dec. 6 in New York (AP)

Merriam-Webster, Inc., the American publisher of the eponymous dictionary, reveals its Word of the Year each December.

Last year, the honor went to "justice," mirroring a spike in society's interest in the principles of truth and fairness--or the lack thereof--under the Trump administration.

In 2017, the word was "feminism," due to the global Me Too movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault.

And this year? Somewhat surprisingly, the humdrum pronoun "they" took the crown.

According to Merriam-Webster, its use as a singular, gender neutral and non-binary pronoun has spiked in recent years, reflecting society's growing readiness to fight discrimination against women and sexual minorities.

Remembering the rules of subject-verb agreement that I was taught decades ago in English grammar classes, my head spins when I remind myself that "they" is now a singular pronoun just like "he" and "she" used with plural verbs such as "are."

The city of Berkeley in California is reportedly in the process of outlawing gender-specific expressions from the city code. The banned list includes "manhole" and "manpower," along with "he" and "she."

Critics say the city is going too far, but the need to eliminate sexism and prejudice appears to be justification enough.

The Japanese language is changing, too. Gender-specific expressions such as "joryu sakka" (female author) and "jyoshi" (an appellation used only with women) have long gone obsolete.

And until not too long ago, the print media followed the custom of using the gender identifiers "shi" for men and "san" for women. This may surprise younger Japanese today.

The Japanese equivalents of "he" and "she" are "kare" and "kanojo," respectively. Now, what can we replace them with?

Some gender-neutral substitutions that come to mind are "soitsu" "aitsu" and "yatsu"--all rather coarse, impolite equivalents of "that person" or "that individual."

But if I try to be more civil and say "sonohito" or "anohito," I risk sounding colder or more distant than I intend.

Anyone have better ideas?

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.