CULTURE

"They" Is Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year, So Stop Being a Dick About It

This is a big deal for recognizing nonbinary folks.

"They" is Merriam-Webster's 2019 Word of the Year.

As a singular pronoun, "they" has exponentially risen in popularity over the last few years to refer to nonbinary people—folks who feel neither entirely male nor female. Other neutral pronouns like "ze" and "hir" can also be used, although "they/them" is most widely used among English-speaking communities.

Though so-called grammar purists have dismissed the use of the singular "they" on the basis of clarity, Merriam-Webster (as well as the Oxford English Dictionary) insists that it's totally OK. In September, Merriam-Webster officially added the singular "they," stating: "People have used singular 'they' to describe someone whose gender is unknown for a long time, but the nonbinary use of 'they' is relatively new."


According to Merriam-Webster, lookups for "they" increased by 313 percent in 2019 over the last year. Sure, everyone knows what "they" means in a pretty simple sense, but we still use dictionaries to look up different usages of words and how definitions change over time. A few events in the news this year likely spurred the sharp increase in lookups: Singer Sam Smith and Atypical star Brigette Lundy-Paine both announced they were using they/them pronouns. The American Psychological Association recommended that "writers should use the singular 'they' in two main cases: (a) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and (b) when referring to a specific, known person who uses 'they' as their pronoun." During a House Judiciary meeting in April, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal stated that her child is gender-nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns.

While there's still plenty of work left to do in recognizing and accepting trans and nonbinary folks, "they" being the Word of the Year is a huge start. Though recognizing gender identity outside of the male-female binary might seem a little odd to some—and our current administration continues to pretend like transgender people don't exist—it's crucial that they/them pronouns become normalized, and it's possible to adapt. If "they" can be one of Merriam-Webster's most looked-up words of the past 12 months, it appears that, thankfully, more and more people are getting on board.

Music Lists

Slept On: New Releases from UnoTheActivist, SahBabii, and More

SahBabii, UnoTheActivist and more make up this weeks under appreciated releases

Juice WRLD's posthumous release, Legends Never Die, has already sold over 400,000 copies, putting it in the running for the biggest release of 2020.

Meanwhile, Summer Walker confidently returns with a sleek new E.P., Kid Cudi and Marshall Mathers unite for the first time, James Blake quietly dropped a shadowy new track, and H.E.R. added a splash of reggae flavor to her new track "Do To Me." While it was a big week for the mainstream, it was equally as massive for the underground. Upcoming mumble emcee SahBabii's released an infectious collection of wavy, levitative hip-hop, and the iconic Fresh Veggies duo of Casey Veggies and Rockie Fresh return for their second outing. Check out the latest underground releases below.

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CULTURE

Did Billy Dee Williams Really Come Out as Gender Fluid?

The man who made Lando Calrissian a household name may not be a "man" after all

Esquire

Billy Dee Williams is a sex symbol.

The deep silky tones of his voice. The sly smile that invites you to be as comfortable and cool as he is. He has sexual chemistry with literally everyone, literally all the time.

lando and boba fett having chemistry Everyone!


So when Donald Glover took over the iconic role of Lando Calrissian—essentially playing a younger version of Williams for Solo: A Star Wars Story—it should hardly have been surprising to anyone that Glover and the film's writers would refer to Lando as pansexual. And yet, it did. Just as people of a certain stripe will find cause for outrage in women being allowed to bust ghosts and hypersexualized videogame characters wearing slightly more clothing than they used to, Twitter commentators began attacking this addition to a classic character that they had rigidly defined according to their own narrow views.


billy dee tweet Twitter @jere7my


According to them, both Billy Dee Williams and Lando Calrissian were consummate cis, hetero, norm-conforming, masculine males. Look at his jawline! Look at his mustache! Look at the way he flirts with Leia! This is a man's man who drinks malt liquor, objectifies women, and makes capes look badass. According to this assessment, the suggestion that Lando Calrissian could even be attracted to anyone outside of the traditional, heteronormative structure of romance was an affront to manhood itself. Anyone that cool and manly could only be into women, and pretending otherwise could only be a part of the SJW attack on civilization.


liberace cape Not to suggest that you have to be straight to make a cape look badass


Those same commentators must be having some complicated feelings today, with the news that Billy Dee Williams, at the age of 82, is not at all hung up on these old ideas. In a recent interview with Esquire, Williams—who is reprising his role as Han Solo's frenemy in the upcoming film, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker—refers to himself/herself with both sets of the traditional gender pronouns, saying, "I think of myself as a relatively colorful character who doesn't take himself or herself too seriously." In case there was any question about the sincerity of that usage, Williams followed up with some clarification, "And you see I say 'himself' and 'herself,' because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine… I'm a very soft person. I'm not afraid to show that side of myself."

billy dee colt 45

Many outlets are reporting this as a straightforward story of the actor "coming out" as "gender fluid." While that's an understandable interpretation of events, Williams does not actually use that term within the interview, which begs the question of what it really means to be gender fluid. If you relate to traits of both the traditionally masculine and the traditionally feminine role—e.g. you are biologically male, but value your feminine side—does that mean you're gender fluid? Does it require a direct declaration of a fluid identity? Or regular use of pronouns other than the one you were assigned at birth?

I don't have an answer, because I don't believe there is one answer. Coming to terms with the fact that gender is largely a social construct means coming to terms with the fact that the definitions of terms around gender are subject to societal standards and norms that are currently—if not permanently—in flux. I personally think many in the media have jumped the gun in declaring Williams to be gender fluid without getting direct confirmation that he/she defines himself/herself in those specific terms. But what's way more important than knowing exactly how to navigate new questions and concerns about gender as culture changes is recognizing the problems with the old strictures—problems which Williams' interview highlights beautifully.


billy dee at solo premiere


Put simply, there are no superficial signifiers that define who a person is supposed to be. Just because Billy Dee Williams projects a public persona that conforms to traditional ideas of masculinity doesn't mean that he/she is beholden to the rigid role that entails. In Williams' own words, "I never tried to be anything except myself." If even someone who seems to have such a natural aptitude for the gruff, cool confidence of old-school masculinity can—at the age of 82—recognize that aspects of his/her identity fall outside the prescribed norms of manhood, then we should all feel a little freer to question the roles that are set out for us.


billy dee winking


If all that means for you is letting yourself cry when Sam Smith comes on the radio, changing up your grooming habits, or expanding your wardrobe to include some badass capes, that's great. And if it means using a different pronoun, a different name, or taking more permanent measures to match your gender presentation to your gender identity, then maybe a figure like Billy Dee Williams referring to herself as feminine can help give you some license to defy expectations.