Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


It happened in the family car well over a decade ago. In the back seat were two of my school-age kids. We were stopped by some  traffic-lights which seemed to stay red for far too long, as if their sequencing system wasn’t functioning. Youngsters became impatient.
“These lights must be gay,” came a voice from the back seat.
“Pardon?” I said
“You know – gay,” said the young voice
“No, I don’t know,” I said, but I had the feeling that actually I did.
After a little more investigation it became clear what “gay” meant in common playground parlance. It meant “broken, malfunctioning, second-rate, of little worth, kaput, not right, not what it should be”.
Especially when dealing with kids, it’s wise not to encourage something by making a big issue of it – so I let the matter drop and assumed that this was one of those faddish playground usages that fade in a season or two.
But apparently I was wrong.
Earlier this week, I read news of a schoolteacher who wants to forbid the term “gay”, in the sense I first heard over a decade ago, from playground use. Clearly the usage has become firmly lodged now, and was not just a passing fad. The teacher’s argument is that it reflects and enforces homophobic attitudes and the belief that gays are inferior.
He may have a point.
It’s hard to believe that, years ago, some young schoolkids would first have begun to use the term as they do if they had not been cued, probably by adults, to the idea that gays are odd, malfunctioning, not as they should be etc. etc.
And yet in another way, the schoolteacher is profoundly wrong.
The usage has taken on a life of its own. Not only do schoolkids use it unselfconsciously but in many cases (as I’m sure was the case with my own kids) without any sexual connotations at all.
This points to one of those ironies that only time can reveal.
The origins and provenance of the term “gay” to mean homosexual are very much disputed. Like so many words with sexual connotations, it had an in-group or underground use for a long time before it became widely used by the general public. One source I read said that the very first mainstream use of the word with something like the current sexual connotation was in the 1937 Hollywood movie Bringing Up Baby where, in some farcical situation, the lead character played by Cary Grant had to put on women’s clothes. When challenged, he  declared “I just came over all gay!”
Even so, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that “gay” in the sense of homosexual became a widespread and mainstream usage.
When it did, there were outraged letters to the press from old codgers decrying the use and lamenting that “we” could no longer use the word in the older general sense of bright, colourful, happy and cheerful. People now snickered at the titles of old movies like Let Us Be Gay and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. They snickered particularly at the old song that began “A Bachelor Gay Am I”. Vigorous and ageing heterosexual men would no longer be called “gay old dogs” –  not that they had been for many decades.” An ice-cream brand called Gaytime was no longer seen (though, to be strictly accurate, one Australian company does still market Golden Gaytime ice cream).
In the 1970s, the answer the old codgers were given by linguists was a simple one. Language is a living thing, language is always changing and the language had changed. The new term had become mainstream and there was no point protesting. Popular usage is not something that can be regulated. Get used to it.
“Gay” meaning homosexual found its way into the dictionaries, the usage was canonised and (apparently) made unassailable.
The linguists were right, of course. In the long run, common usage cannot be regulated, and people who wave about dictionaries or grammar texts to stop a usage dead in its tracks are fighting a losing battle. For example, how often have I been told that strictly speaking “sophisticated” means “corrupted” rather than “worldly, aware and informed”, and that I need only check a dictionary to see this is so. But the point is, we don’t speak strictly. We speak colloquially, and in the end it is the colloquial that becomes the norm. “Sophisticated” means worldly, aware and informed. Get used to it.
Language changes from below. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have allowed uneducated slobs four centuries ago to start ignoring the difference between the second-person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and the second-person plural (you, ye, your and yours) to the point where the original second-person singular dropped out of the language altogether.
So, when schoolkids use “gay” to mean inferior, broken, not right etc., shouldn’t we just say popular usage has changed and get used to it, the way people did when the word “gay” underwent its last metamorphosis?
The answer is – yes and no.
Yes if we admit that the living nature of colloquial language means it can’t, in the long run, be regulated. Attempts to suppress the usage will give it the very cachet that kids value as something profoundly irritating to adults.
No if we are going to be consistent and say we do not sanction playground usage of other offensive terms – “four-letter” words, racial slurs etc. So we should ban the term and force the kids to conform.
Which of course, they will.
To our faces.


  1. Agreed - language is a living thing. Throughout the history of the English language (and all other languages of course) people are constantly putting their ideas and opinions onto a particular word. Then events where that word is used in one way or another can change it. And I'm sure that most of the 'worldly' people are also 'corrupted' anyway. :)

  2. It may have afforded homosexuals a greater acceptability due to the original positive connotations but I feel sorry for the word. How else to describe that mix of blithe, vivacious and flamboyant in just 3 letters without implying the more common usage? And now this new assault on the merry and flashy by a deterioration of the recent, generic meaning. Probably the old adjective's death knell. 'Knave' and 'hussy' used to be positive (or at least neutral) terms. I think it is in our nature to besmirch.