Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining linguistics

Language is alive. Language evolves. Words gain different contexts, alternate meanings, new layers of subtlety.

But just so we’re clear: “Gay,” when used in a negative judgmental context, is still something to avoid. Saying something undesirable is “gay” still draws on its use as a homophobic slur in modern society.

“But ‘gay’ also means jovial and carefree,” I hear the collegiate-dictionary crowd cry. “This is a word that has already been transformed by its alternate meaning. ‘Faggot’ used to only mean a bundle of sticks, too.”

Yes, true — do the language historians you hang out with on Xbox Live use them in their original, archaic contexts often? When these words are used today, it’s with the modern homosexual connotation, or directly derived from it. These words have gained immense power through this association, which is what makes them so desirable to the powerless. When you hear a kid calling something ‘gay,’ he is almost certainly unaware of the light-hearted definition from the 14th century; when he uses the word ‘faggot,’ he’s clearly — if only from the pejorative¬†force with which he’s saying it — not talking about a bundle of sticks from 1550. He only knows the modern American English definition of “gay” established in the 1910s, still in use in his society — and he was introduced to it as an insult, so he’s using it now as a cruel shorthand.

“But I just use the word ‘gay’ to mean something is stupid or bad,” I hear you reply. “It doesn’t mean I hate gay people.”

Well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word for trickle-down linguistics, but…it’s definitely negative, by your own admission. And there’s an entire group of people who self-identify as gay, and have engaged in decades of social activism as they try to establish tolerance and acceptance for everything related to that word. Now that same word just happens to be your new way to say something is not up to your standards or worthy of your respect. Do you really expect me to believe that you are unaware of the relationship here? How ignorant should I assume you to be?

We can play “what-if,” though. Think of any other word that a social, ethnic, or religious group uses to identify themselves or their culture and consider using it in casual conversation as a word that means “bad.” You can’t even choose your word without knowing its modern context. Now consider how offensive (or, depending on how far your imagination goes for this assignment,¬†potentially life-threatening) it would be to take that word into a room of strangers and say “and by that, I mean worthless.” Hell, if you did it with the name of any given sports team, you’d piss someone off.

I suggest that the best way to say something is stupid or terrible would be to use words like “stupid” or “terrible.”¬†But if you want to use words like “gay,” I accept your choice to do that — but you then accept the responsibility that comes with using it. You are always accountable to those with whom you speak, so don’t expect that using a slur as a casual expression will go unchallenged, and don’t play dumb when you inevitably are called out for it.

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