GOOD

Is It OK to Say "Gay"?

If "gay" can mean both "homosexual" and "lame," does it make us homophobic to use it for the latter? A discussion of a controversial word.

\n
Exploring the different meanings of a controversial word.

The word “gay” is everywhere you look these days. Gay activists support gay rights such as gay marriage, while gay-bashers protest all things gay, including the gayby boom. There’s also been a rash of suicides involving gay youngsters who were bullied—which is perhaps why the trailer for The Dilemma caught major flak. In it, Vince Vaughn says: “Ladies and gentleman, electric cars ... are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”


That controversy has passed, the director Ron Howard opted to keep the lines in the movie, and we all moved on to other business. But this incident raises some major issues, not just socially and artistically, but in the realm of word meanings. Most people are very aware of the meaning of “gay” as happy or lame, but the word has had an astounding range of other meanings as well. What “gay” means depends entirely on your time period and perspective, and these days, perspective can be hard to find.

The original sense of “gay” was entirely positive. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “Noble; beautiful; excellent, fine.” The sense of “gay” as happy or merry dates from the 1400s and inspired some bizarrely specific senses, such as “of a horse: lively, prancing” and “of a dog's tail: carried high or erect.”

In several earlier definitions, we can see the seeds of “gay” beginning to mean homosexual, if only because these meanings fit with what would become gay stereotypes. “With gay abandon” started meaning “with reckless abandon” in the mid-1800s. “Gay” also meant something like “prostitute-y” in the 1800s, as a “gay woman” or “gay girl” was what we call a sex worker these days. Another sense, used since the 1500s, fits gay stereotypes like a reductionist glove: “...dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic ... uninhibited; wild, crazy; flamboyant.” That meaning was intended here, in 1879: “Besides being very handsome, there are reasons to fear that Mr. Charles Victor Fremy was sometimes very, very gay.”

As far as we can tell, “gay” only started meaning homosexual in the early 1940s. Earlier citations only appear that way retroactively, like this 1922 quotation from Gertrude Stein: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then ... They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there ... not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”

The earliest OED examples of “gay” meaning homosexual are from 1941. This example from that year shows just how in-flux (and covert) the meaning was: “Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was ‘wise’ or even homosexual. One might ask: ‘Are there any gay spots in Boston?’ And by a slight accent put on the word ‘gay’ the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant.”

Meanwhile, examples of “gay” meaning “lame” don't turn up until the 1970s. The first known use is from 1978: “‘It looks terrific on you.’ ‘It looks gay.’” This takes us back to the Vince Vaughan lines. Let’s take another look at them: “Ladies and gentleman, electric cars...are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”

I have mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, it’s 100 percent understandable why GLAAD is a little sensitive to anything that sounds like gay-bashing. If I could, I would personally bash gay-bashers with a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, I don’t think the lines deserve much, if any, criticism. Though this has been widely referred to as a “gay joke,” I don’t see any joke at all. It's just an observation with an unfortunate connotation that the screenwriters went out of their way to make clear wasn’t intended. Isn’t Vaughn’s clarification—“not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay”—equivalent to the famous Seinfeld “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”? So what’s wrong with that?

I also have trouble seeing what the “lame” sense of “gay” has to do with homosexuality. Does anyone in the world think gay folks are lame? As I understand the homophobic viewpoint, gay people are considered sinners and evil-doers—a lot worse than lame, right? If the collective gay people of the world could magically transform all “gays are abominations” sentiment to “gays are like, totally lame,” I have a feeling they would take that bargain, because nobody bothers to legally discriminate against the lame. Maybe gay people can commiserate with the physically lame, who lost the battle over that word years ago.

The dislike of “gay” is an awful lot like the dislike of “retard”—both words, when used insultingly, are hated for reasons that are very compassionate. But language is an amoral beast that operates and evolves on its own, and “retard” is just one of many terms for someone of low intelligence—like “idiot” and “moron”—that moved from medicine to slang. You can’t stop language change, and I think that’s OK. It’s more important to take care of people who are retarded than to police every use of the word “retard”—even when it’s used by morons.

Similarly, with so much real, horrible homophobia in the world, trying to censor the “lame” sense of gay is a waste of energy and a losing battle. Fighting losing battles is retarded. And kind of gay.?

Articles
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
test
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics