That’s so gay!

Passed on by Adam Schembri in OUT In Linguistics (on Facebook):

This is generic-slur gay vs. gay ‘homosexual’, which Wentz (and others) take to be “the same word”, so that disparaging occurrences of it (with no attribution of sexuality intended) nevertheless evoke an attribution of sexuality.

Opinions differ. Sarah Cutfield in a comment on Schembri’s posting cited

Lalor, Therese & Johanna Rendle-Short. 2007. ‘That’s So Gay’: A Contemporary Use of Gay in Australian English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 27.2.147-73.

in which the authors argue that the two senses are now distinct — in effect, two different lexical items, connected only historically (just like gay ‘happy, joyous’ and gay ‘homosexual’). Cutfield added:

While I’m of a different generation to the younger one they surveyed, I remain unconvinced that they really are distinct.

The cartoon version, in a 7/29/06 Zits:

I’ll focus on the one-word-or-two issue in a moment. Before that, a note on Pete Wentz, from Wikipedia:

Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III (born June 5, 1979), better known as Pete Wentz, is an American musician best known for being the bassist and primary lyricist for the American rock band Fall Out Boy. Since the announcement of Fall Out Boy’s indefinite hiatus, Wentz has formed the experimental electropop group Black Cards.

Now, 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 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.

A similar unawareness of the sexual sense of gay among (some) children has been reported elsewhere, for instance in the foreword to:

Letts, William J. IV & James T. Sears. 1999. Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

where we read:

Face it: “That’s so gay” has become the mantra of elementary-school children, a mantra invoked whenever a child encounters something or someone they do not like or understand or appreciate. As one third-grader put it plainly when asked by her teacher what “gay” meant: “I don’t know. It’s just a bad thing.”

But many schoolchildren are savvier than that, and research on bullying indicates that some of them deploy gay as an attribution of homosexuality. The question is whether they connect this use to merely disparaging occurrences of gay.

Now, there are cases in the world of slurs and taboo words where an item has diverged semantically from its historical source, to the point where there are now clearly two (synchronically) unrelated words: dumb and dummy, for instance.  The original sense of dumb in English was ‘incapable of speech’, and the original sense of dummy (< dumb + -y) was ‘a dumb person, a deaf-mute’, but both words developed other senses, notably ‘foolish, stupid, ignorant’ for the first and ‘oaf, blockhead’ for the second, both in the 18th century (and then ‘counterfeit object’, in several contexts, for dummy in the 19th, which gives us things like crash test dummy). By now, speechless dumb survives only in an assortment of fixed expresssions (among them, deaf and dumb, struck dumb, dumb animal, dumb-waiter, dumb cane ‘Dieffenbachia plant’), which many people associate with dumb ‘stupid’ or treat as involving a different lexical item. It would be silly to object to dumb on the basis of its historical connection to disability.

Lame has had a roughly similar evolution, though some disabilities-rights writers object to it as a slur on disability.

Then there are cases where phonological identity is sufficient to evoke the historically older use of some expression, even when the expression has clearly split in two: (older) sexual fuck vs. (more recent) expressive fuck, for instance. These matters are complicated: look at piss ‘urinate’ vs. piss in piss off ‘anger, annoy’ and pissed ‘angered, annoyed’, where in U.S. media, the first is proscribed, the second allowed.

Finally, it’s likely that the status of expressions differs from person to person, and changes over time. In the case of gay, there is evidence that for some speakers merely-disparaging gay and homosexual gay are in some sense the same item. Look at the following (two examples from among many):

Hey guys! What’s up? I’ve been watching your Prop 8 YouTube video over and over since Diana posted it yesterday, and I feel compelled to tell you: YOUR SON RANDY IS GAY. I don’t mean in that Hilary Duff way [‘lame’]. I mean gay-gay. Don’t ask me how I know; I have wicked awesome gaydar is all. (link)

This is so gay. I don’t mean in the way that anything uncool or unfair or boring is “gay” these days. I mean gay gay. (link)

The X-X construction here is known in the business as Contrastive Focus Reduplication (most recent discussion on Language Log here, with references and links). From

Jila Ghomeshi, Ray Jackendoff, Nicole Rosen, and Kevin Russell, “Contrastive Focus Reduplication in English (the Salad-Salad Paper)“, NLLT (2004).

this observation:

The semantic effect of this construction is to focus the denotation of the reduplicated element on a more sharply delimited, more specialized, range. For instance, SALAD–salad in (1a) denotes specifically green salad as opposed to salads in general, and, in the context in which (1e) was used, AUCKLAND–Auckland denotes the city in New Zealand as opposed to other cities that may happen to have this name. For a first approximation, we characterize this effect as denoting the prototypical instance of the reduplicated lexical expression.

In this analysis, it’s crucial that in this X -X construction, the two occurrences of X are both instances of a single lexical expression; so gay-gay denotes the prototypical instance of gay — homosexual gay — and distinguishes it from merely-disparaging gay, but both are treated as instances of one lexical item. At least for people who use gay-gay this way.

14 Responses to “That’s so gay!”

  1. Julian C. Lander Says:

    I have to contribute my Contrastive Focus Reduplication story. After her divorce, my mother began teaching English at a two-year junior college. Following some meeting, her department head asked her whether she wanted to go out for a drink. In response she asked, “Do you mean a coffee drink or a DRINK drink?” to which he replied “a DRINK drink.” Apparently this made it a date, and they eventually married (and were extremely happily married until his death some 30 years later). I assume that were it a coffee drink, there would have been no romantic intention.

  2. Adam Pack Says:

    I’m not sure if it’s interesting, but:
    Being English, I’m used to ‘fag’ being used as a slur, but I tend to associate it with ‘inferior boy at public school’, rather than ‘homosexual’. I think recently it’s acquired more of the latter sense in England in recent years because of the influence of US culture.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m sure that the influence of American culture is signficant. Older British fag was a slur, I think, only because of the suggestion of inferiority and subordination.

      • Adam Pack Says:

        With the coalition we have here at present, there’s quite an ambiguous area when Clegg is often described as Cameron’s ‘fag’, and I think there is a slight undertone of the American sense.
        As a passing note, when you discuss ‘pissed’=’urinated’ vs ‘pissed’=’angry’, here in England it usually means ‘drunk’, so there’s sometimes quite an interesting lack of clarity when it’s applied to someone, especially online when the origin of the writer isn’t immediately apparent.

        [AMZ, on pissed: yes, that’s why I made the comment specific to the U.S.]

      • Adam Pack Says:

        Re your comment in [ ]; I just mentioned ‘pissed’ because it’s another instance where the British usage is tinted by the American usage (not so much the other way, I don’t think), as with ‘fag’, but it’s not always clear to where in the mid-Atlantic any given writer is speaking from. I apologise if it seemed irrelevant.

  3. Rick Sprague Says:

    In the Zits cartoon, Jeremy might instead have said “I don’t mean GAY gay, I mean LAME gay”. I can’t see how the second elements in that case could be the same lexical item, despite that they are both meant to refer to his “gay” in the first panel. For this reason I take the second elements to be semantically bleached, a mention rather than a use. And without semantics they aren’t lexical items at all, are they?

  4. OTP in the ATL Says:

    I’ve encountered a twist on this one here in the Greater Metro Atlanta area. Gay means homosexual, but to use the word in the sense of “lame-gay” the pronunciation is changed. Instead of “gay” it’s now pronounced “guh-hay” to indicate the different meaning. I’ve seen this in somewhat common usage by 25-35 year old, fashion conscious, semi-affluent women and men. Yep, hipsters. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hipster

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Much more widespread. It started with a re-spelling of GAY as GHEY or GHAY for the ‘lame’ sense; ADS-L discussion in 2004, referring to the Urban Dictionary entries and to the TechIMO website in 2003. Already in 2004 people sometimes gave a distinct pronunciation to GHEY (vs. GAY).

      Considerable discussion on Language Log in 2009 on the Think B4 You Speak campaign (here, with some discussion of the spelling GHEY in the comments (and exchanges in which ghey is used to denote gay ‘lame’, plus a comment by Timothy Martin in which he notes the alternative pronunciation for GHEY).

  5. Stan Says:

    In his book Southern Irish English: Review and Exemplary Texts (2009), Séamus Moylan writes:

    The two phonetic forms of queer, [kweːr] and [kwɪːr], have diverged semantically, the first having the local (SIE) senses “strange, peculiar, funny” and the second the standard senses.

    The former pronunciation is often spelt quare, as in Brendan Behan’s play “The Quare Fellow”, and it can also serve as an intensifier.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Moylan’s “the standard senses” is hard to interpret, since ‘strange, unusual, etc.’ is the first gloss given by dictionaries: it’s the historical original and still for many speakers the primary sense.

      The OED sorts these things out as follows: it lists quare as the Irish English equivalent of sense 1a of queer elsewhere, leaving queer in Irish English to cover the senses ‘out of sorts, unwell’ and ‘homosexual’.

  6. arnold zwicky Says:

    From William Steed in OUT In Linguistics:

    Has any one else ever heard “That’s so homo” in a context where you would otherwise hear “That’s so gay”? I heard it (unfortunately) from one of my students the other day, and it caught me off guard.

    It has unfortunate implications that the gay (lame) and gay (homosexual) meanings are not as polysemous as it was suggested by Rendle-Short and Lalor (2007), but still a generalisation of the gay=bad concept.

  7. A tribute to Life in Hell « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Another riff on the current senses of gay; for discussion, see my posting “That’s so gay!” (here). […]

  8. A tribute to Life in Hell « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Another riff on the current senses of gay; for discussion, see my posting “That’s so gay!” (here). […]

  9. NCOD « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Then there’s Pete Wentz opposing both generalized-disparagement gay and generalized-disparagement fag, here. […]

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