Spear/Smear the Queer

My posting on “Fear the beard” got me into phonological association mode, and I pulled up the name of a kids’ game called variously Spear the Queer or Smear the Queer.

The rhyme’s the thing, hurling slurs is a big thing on the schoolyard, and the game has an aggressive component that goes beyond competitive and playful, so the name is no great surprise. Still, distressing.

Here’s a U.K. site with a description of the game, which is absolutely minimal in rules and equipment:

Playground game, somewhat akin to Rugby, where one lad runs around with a ball while pursued by his classmates who try to tackle him. There are no end zones, no scoring, any type of ball will do, The entire width and breadth of the playground is the field. Upon being tackled, the “Queer” throws the ball to the lad of his choosing who then becomes the “Queer” and must run to evade being tackled for as long as possible.

The game is played, I think, all over the U.S. I first became aware of it several decades ago in the Columbus OH schools, where many many teachers and parents were upset about the game, some because of its aggressive nature, more because of the name.

There are lots of Youtube videos available, some with teenaged and young adult players.

Many kids love chase games, often with unarticulated and shifting rules. My grand-daughter (now age 6) has several times engaged boys in such games. (She’s a physical kid, and she can hold her own against bigger kids.)

But the tackling involved in the game concerns many parents and teachers. It can be rough sport. On the other hand, it’s egalitarian: once It is brought down, the ball passes to someone else (in one variant, to the tackler), who’s now It. In that variant, if you want to be bold enough to tackle It, then you become It. The game, despite its name, isn’t focused on particular kids. (I have no idea how the game is brought to an end. Or how the first It is chosen, though in one video I’ve seen the first It actually initiates the game. Presumably these are matters of local custom.)

So you can worry about kids tackling one another, on the schoolyard or playing fields or backyards, but there’s still the problem with the name.

Yes, yes, I understand that in this context labeling a kid as the Queer is no attribution of homosexuality, gender deviance, or whatever. But the name still gets its power as a put-down from its uses in other contexts. I can embrace gay, queer, and yes, fag/faggot in many contexts — gay and queer have become completely naturalized in a variety of contexts, and dyke and fag have been reclaimed in some — but in the end it depends on who’s saying these things to who and for what reasons, so that they can be fighting words.

The generalization of terms like gay and queer (and retarded and many other slurs) to generic slurs is entirely understandable to me as a linguist, and as an ordinary user of English I know how to calculate which sense of these words is intended in context. Still, I’m unhappy with the generic-slur uses of gay and queer, and especially dismayed at the idea that people who use them might still connect them with the ‘homosexual’ sense subliminally. Phonological identity can prime semantic association.

So there are campaigns — Youtube videos with comedian Wanda Sykes and others — against the use of gay as a slur conveying deficiency (glossed most often as ‘stupid’, but in the vernacular as, alas, ‘lame’ or ‘retarded’, in their slur senses).

Queer got into this pickle, of course, from its ‘strange, odd, different’ uses. That is, its slur use started as a simple euphemism (like that way in “He’s that way, you know”), but then (as so often happens) the euphemism inherited the socially uncomfortable meaning it was originally designed to avoid.

Then, like gay, it was generalized to broader uses, though not, I think, fully detached from the homosexual slur sense. But I do know that some kids, challenged about their using spear/smear the queer as the name of a game, say simply and with some puzzlement that queer was just their word for It in the game.

What replaces queer in these game names? There are variants called Kill the Man with the Ball and similar things, but none of them have the phonological attractions of Spear/Smear the Queer.

I suggest Kill Bill. Surely that’s aggressive enough.


5 Responses to “Spear/Smear the Queer”

  1. Bill Findlay Says:


  2. Benjamin Lukoff Says:

    I remember both playing Smear the Queer and calling things “gay” when I was younger. I — and I would assume most of my classmates — made no association of these terms with homosexuality — until right about the time we hit puberty. Which, perhaps coincidentally, is right about the time we stopped playing StQ and stopped using “gay” as a negative descriptor quite so much.

    The interesting thing is that the only people I know now who semi-regularly use “gay” as a negative descriptor are themselves both gay men.

    This may not be representative, as I went to a K-12 private school in Seattle, with a class of never more than 40 people.

  3. Sam Says:

    As a child in Palo Alto in the late 80s we played that game, though we generally called it ‘Kill the Pill’. We were aware of the ‘Smear the Queer’ name, but we knew that we would encounter even more disapproval (over and above the disapproval for tackling, etc.) if we used it, so we didn’t.

  4. W Says:

    A very late comment to let you know the name of the game in my part of Australia is “mugby” mixing mug and rugby.

  5. That’s so gay! « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on disparaging gay vs. homosexual gay, I looked at some of the complexities in a posting on the kids’ game Spear/Smear the Queer: I understand that in this context labeling a kid as the […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: