Associations and connotations

[I spent yesterday getting together a handout for my Stanford Sematics Fest paper (today):

Categories and Labels: LGBPPTQQQEIOAAAF2/SGL …

(abstract here, discussion of the giant initialism here). Here’s a section of the handout that pursues a theme from my posting “Labels: homosexual” (here) on associations and connotations of labels. (I will eventually post a link to the whole handout.)]

The labels pick up associations (or connotations) from their contexts of use, at least as individual speakers experience these, and so are promoted or disfavored

[Note that associations / connotations can be reinterpreted over time as denotations, at least for some groups of speakers.]

The result is that the labels become “politicized” or “ideologized” by virtue of their history. Homosexual is a case in point; from “Labels: homosexual”:

(1) The term originated, as an adjective, in a medical context, in translations of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, from which it spread to non-technical contexts. So it has a “clinical” tone to it that suggests disease to many people.

(2) For the noun use, which developed a bit later than the adjective use, OED2 notes that

In non-technical contexts it is often taken to mean a male homosexual, a female one being termed a lesbian.

As a result, some people object to the term as being insufficiently inclusive.

At the same time, the fact that homosexual has sex so prominently in it combines with the disease associations of the word and the fact that some public figures (especially religious and political ones) take sexual practices to be the defining characteristic of the category in question means that homosexual has become the term of choice in much anti-gay rhetoric – and, as a result, it has become an objectionable term to gays and lesbians, except in medical and legal contexts (and, increasingly, even there). Inclusive calls for Pride events and school and social organizations don’t invite homosexuals; there’s no H in the big initialism.

Gay, in contrast, spread fast from largely group-internal uses into the wider world (though it took the New York Times a long time to get the news), though it’s not without its own historical associations that make it problematical for some: the association with men, who dominated the early political and social enterprises (which gives us lesbians and gay men as a favored label for gender-neutral reference, despite its verbosity); the association with movement politics (any number of men have told me that they don’t call themselves gay because they’re “not political”); and an association with the flamboyantly gay (“drag queens and men in totally revealing leather”, as the expression goes), as in my passage on presentation of self (in the full handout).

Lesbian has had its own travails. Like gay, it has associations with political and social action, and, more important, for many it has strong historical associations with “man-hating” feminism (see McConnell-Ginet’s discussion, pp. 144-8). Here’s Bonnie Morris (Gay & Lesbian Review) on one consequence:

[last September, at the welcome-back reception at Georgetown’s LGBT Center] Diverse allies throng the event, which is garnished with “I AM” posters portraying a dozen Georgetown figures claiming different identities – I AM a gay man, a queer woman, bisexual, an ally, etc. How far we’ve come [since she came to Georgetown, in 1994], I think. But it doesn’t take long for me to notice that absolutely no one on the poster identifies as a lesbian.

Morris’s analysis of the situation (which is more widespread than this one occurrence) is that “the terms most popular in identity discourse today” are

all gender-neutral or male-inclusive. They embrace masculine possibilities and identities or relationships with men. “Lesbian” is the one identity that remains challengingly “exclusive” of men. Thus the L term reads as alarmingly separatist even to women who might be personally unfamiliar with actual lesbian-separatist movements or politics.

Instead the L remains boxed up in initialisms, and queer woman, or the adjective queer, replaces lesbian. Maybe some day (after “The L Word” passes into history) we’ll be saying that the L in LGBT “doesn’t stand for anything”, like the S in SRI, International.

As for queer, read McConnell-Ginet (“Queering Semantics”). It’s had great success as a label for a higher-level taxon, though one that’s by no means a simple replacement for gay or an equivalent to LGBT (and a fair number of people just hate it). Here’s Richard Goldstein (2002: xiv-xv) being deliberately provocative:

I’m drawn to queer as a logo—if not as garlic to wave in the gay right’s face—but that might mean changing familiar phrases such as gay liberation and gay rights.  So I’ve decided to use these terms in a somewhat arbitrary way. By queer, I mean the whole gestalt, including sluts, punks, s/m dykes, trannies, sissies, sailors on leave, and Anne Heche. By gay, I generally mean out and proud homosexuals.  But don’t hold me to these definitions. At the risk of offending or confusing some, I’ve done what feels right. Why else would I be . . . a major ’mo?


Campbell-Kibler, Kathryn; Rob Podesva; Sarah Roberts; & Andrew Wong (eds.). 2002.  Language and sexuality: Contesting meaning in theory and practice. Stanford CA: CSLI.

Goldstein, Richard. 2002. The attack queers: Liberal society and the gay right. London: Verso.

McConnell-Ginet, Sally. 2002. ‘Queering’ semantics: Definitional struggles. Campbell-Kibler et al. 2002:137-60.

Morris, Bonnie J. 2011. Erasure of the “L” word from LGBT politics. Gay & Lesbian Review, Jan.-Feb. 2011, p. 5.


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