In an article in The New Yorker (December 24 & 31, 2007) Caleb Crain looks into the possible passing of reading as a widely used skill. What would happen if people stopped reading? People didn’t always read, of course. Most people in the world still don’t, I’d wager. He looks at research into the way non-literate people use language. For them, he says, “Words have their present meanings but no older ones[.]”
Earlier this month I talked about the claim some make that when they use offensive words like “faggot” and “gay”* they don’t mean to denigrate gay people. One clever teen in a discussion thread I read put it this way (I’m paraphrasing): “The ‘gay’ I’m using to denigrate things and the ‘gay’ used to refer to homosexuals are not the same words. They’re homonyms. I don’t mean to refer to gay people when I say something stupid is ‘gay.’” I give the kid credit for a cleverness. It’s a lawyerly answer. Suppose gay people were completely accepted, even celebrated as a matter of course in this society; if ‘gay’ persisted as a put-down then a case might be made for their being two completely separate words that just happen to be spelled and sound alike. “Anti-gay people! Gawd, they are just so gay!”
I don’t see it. But I will add that when I was a kid I had no idea I was taking advantage of anti-gypsy stereotypes when I would say, “What a gyp!”, referring to a bad deal. I no longer use that word. When I learned the word I didn’t even know it was spelled like the first syllable of “gypsy” or that gypsies had a bad reputation. I probably thought of them as fairy tale characters, like pirates or witches.
* That is, I mean people will use "gay", which I don't consider offensive, in a way that is clearly intended to be offensive, as a synonym for "unacceptable". [update as of 1/23/11]