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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Say what, now?

A little vocabulary lesson.

1. gay (adj.) - homosexual contemporary usage
2. gay (adj.) - happy, cheerful, bright archaic usage

Somewhere in the world, someone thinks it's OK to use "gay" as a generic term of disapproval. That person may or may not be a raging homophobe. Sometimes the person consciously intends to link sexual preference and disapprobation, sometimes not. But the language is homophobic, whether consciously so or not. Using "gay" to mean lame, ridiculous, or otherwise unappealing is homophobic - I really don't think that's open for discussion. And I can't begin to address the problems of intentional bigotry right now. Here's what I'd like to discuss: prefacing your misuse of hurtful, bigoted language with a phrase like, "for lack of a better word." I see this as similar to the common practice of using the phrase "no offense" right before saying something that is, and can only be, offensive. Those phrases don't make what follows any less problematic. In the case of the misuse of the adjectival gay, it doesn't even make sense. It serves, in fact, to highlight the problem, because there is no lack of better words.

As it happens, the English language contains a great number of ways to express the fact that something is not to your liking. Thinking of situations in which I've heard such sentiments expressed - incorrectly - by using the term "gay," several better, more descriptive choices spring immediately to mind. Odd, strange, weird, lame, boring, pretentious, stupid...those are just the ones that came to mind without really thinking about it, and all of them are fairly commonplace and simple words. The choices may not be endless, but there is no lack of better words. If none of these will do you and you're really at a loss, try a thesaurus (available free online!). Or try an exercise: the next time you want to describe something as "gay," but what you really mean is something like, "I find it unacceptable for reasons that probably have nothing to do with sexual preference," think of how you'd explain to your grandmother what you were trying to say. Substitute those words for "gay." Voila!

eta a response to J., who writes:
I, as a frequent user of "gay" as a term of disapproval, must come to the defense of its usage. Technically, gay means happy, as in "I'm so gay." So it's kinda like Opposite Talk, as defined by the Urban Dictionary, a legit source of reference. Now if we were talking about "homo" or "homosexual", as in "I'm so homo" I'd be right there with you.

Thanks for your reply, J. The fact that gay only technically means happy anymore is exactly the reason that argument doesn't wash. When gay was used pejoratively as far back as the 17th century, the prevailing meaning of "gay" was "happy," and the pejorative use referred to a sort of frivolous hedonism that those using it pejoratively considered sinful. If the standard usage of gay still meant happy, and the contemporary usage of gay as a term of disapproval implied either "unhappy" or "sinfully lacking in seriousness and devoted to petty pleasures," then your argument would be relevant.

But language evolves.

That usage of gay is archaic, and has been for longer than either of us has been alive. Gay, meaning homosexual, is found as far back as the 19th century; its use in-group is known as far back as the 1920s; and it gained prominence in mainstream vernacular circa late 1960s, early 1970s. (I'm speaking here of American vernacular, because language evolves differently in different places.)

We know that gay was used most commonly used to mean happy. But, we also know that it is no longer commonly used to mean happy, and that it is now most commonly used to refer to sexual orientation. So here's the question: do you, in your everyday language, use "gay" to mean happy? And, when you use it as an insult, do you actually mean "unhappy" or perhaps "sinfully frivolous"? I'm not asking if you COULD mean that, given all past meanings of the term, but whether you DO, in fact, mean that. If so, then my criticism doesn't apply to you. If not, it may be worth thinking a little more honestly about your vocabulary.

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