Wednesday, January 19, 2011

do you read?

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]


Jim Murdoch said...

I find it interesting that when you look up the word ‘gay’ it still lists ‘having or showing a merry, lively mood’ as the first (and one would assume primary) definition of the word whereas, as you rightly point out, very few people these days born after the 1950s would list that as their primary definition of the word. The entry in the Urban Dictionary is also interesting and I note that one entry does suggest that gay = happy should now be considered as archaic except in the expression ‘gay old time’. I see a few of the entries comment that using ‘gay’ as an insult it stupid because there’s nothing wrong with being gay. It’s a point but there is an arbitrariness to how some words are redefined, e.g. what has the colour blue got to do with sadness? And in the sixties something could be both ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ at the same time. The future of the word ‘gay’ depends purely on how many choose to adopt its use. When homosexuals start calling something ‘gay’ and not meaning homosexual then we’ll see.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

In my original post I called gay an "offensive word." Oops. I meant to say something more complicated like "a word used by some people to denigrate" or something.

I've read that "gay" had a secret life doing duty for a cultural underground since at least the early 20th century and probably long before - words may live in an oral culture many years before they are committed to print and so findable by researchers.

Words change meaning over time. Language just drifts. Words Shakespeare used may look the same to us but were probably pronounced differently and often had somewhat different meanings. "Wit" to Shakie meant intelligence. To us it primarily means "cleverness in humorosity."

My argument is that there is nothing arbitrary about the bad connotations "gay" has taken on. The bad connotations are a direct result of the poor regard in which the dominant culture holds gay people.

I don't really understand your last sentence. "When homosexuals start calling something ‘gay’ and not meaning homosexual then we’ll see."

Let's say homosexuals start calling themselves "great people" and "great" begins to be used as an insult by the nongay populace. Would my point then be proved? Should "great" retain all its positive connotations then I would be proved wrong?

I don't like the word "homosexual". It sounds like a diagnosis. And was, far as my history tells me, meant to be. I don't use it for myself. "Gay" has more than sexual connotations, plus it's a friendlier single syllable and at least has happiness in its genes.

I remember in the 70s "Bruce" had somehow become a gay name. Comedians would mock by calling out "Brruuuucciiee!" Then along came Bruce Springsteen (the Boss!) and his 80s megahits and "Bruce" as a faggy insult name just disappeared.

Gay people will not be called "gay" forever, either meant as merely a neutral label, a pride thing, or an insult. I'm mildly optimistic about our future - accepted, incorporated into society as good. Probably more optimistic about that than about global warming, say, or the slowing of the rate of species extinction. Or, to keep it human for a moment, Language extinction. Many unique languages are dying out with their last native speakers every decade.

I like it when words have lots of meanings at their disposal. Nearly anything can be a double entendre, right? And even the nicest compliments can be given a tone of voice that tells you you're being insulted. Tone & context can make "nigger" or "faggot" a term of endearment. There's more to language than what meets the page.

David Maxine said...

The kid's "lawyerly" answer doesn't really hold up. The usage of the word gay to mean stupid - was a deliberate slur against same-sex oriented people. The reasoning behind it was, IMHO, homophobic retaliation. Society was beginning to say one should use words like faggot and dyke etc, and so turning gay into a homonym for "stupid" is a sideways way of hurling a homophobic insult. But with this definition "gimmick" the offender has cover by saying he wasn't talking about GLBT folk, he was talking about the stupidity of something.That is pretty "lawyerly" afterall.

I just hate this new usage because it comes out of nowhere but hate and homophobia. It's not what the word ever meant before. If it was becoming a synonym for silly or something w/o content, I'd be more understanding as those qualities might be inferred into the older usage of "Gay" to mean merry, happy light-hearted, joyful. It just makes non sense for it to have become a synonym for "stupid".

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Yes yes, David. Totally!