A regular festival of ambiguity

(Later in this posting there are a couple of raunchy men’s underwear ads, and some cautiously worded references to men’s bodies and mansex, so some readers might want to exercise caution.)

Ruthie and Joe in the One Big Happy from 10/9:


Three senses of (ir)regular in just four panels. All traceable ultimately to the Latin noun regula ‘rule’, with rule understood as in NOAD:

noun rule: 1 [a] one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere: the rules of the game were understood. [b] a principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable: the rules of grammar. …

The range of senses of regular is impressively large, and illustrates a whole variety of mechanisms of semantic change; the three senses above are a microcosm of this greater world.

From NOAD:

adj. regular: 1 [a] arranged in or constituting a constant or definite pattern, especially with the same space between individual instances: place the flags at regular intervals | a regular arrangement. [b] (of a structure or arrangement) arranged in or constituting a symmetrical or harmonious pattern: beautifully regular, heart-shaped leaves. [c] Botany (of a flower) having radial symmetry. 2 [a] recurring at uniform intervals: a regular monthly check | her breathing became deeper, more regular. [b] done or happening frequently: regular border clashes | parties were a fairly regular occurrence. [c] (of a person) doing the same thing or going to the same place frequently or at uniform intervals: a regular visitor. [d] (of a person) defecating or menstruating at predictable times. 3 [a] conforming to or governed by an accepted standard of procedure or convention: policies carried on by his deputies through regular channels. [b] [attributive] of or belonging to the permanent professional armed forces of a country: a regular soldier. [c] (of a person) properly trained or qualified and pursuing a full-time occupation: a strong distrust of regular doctors. [d] Christian Church subject to or bound by religious rule; belonging to a religious or monastic order: the regular clergy. Contrasted with secular … [e] informal, dated rightly so called; complete; absolute (used for emphasis): this place is a regular fisherman’s paradise. 4 [a] used, done, or happening on a habitual basis; usual; customary: I couldn’t get an appointment with my regular barber | our regular suppliers. [b] chiefly North American of a normal or ordinary kind; not special: it’s richer than regular pasta. [c] North American (of a person) not pretentious or arrogant; ordinary and friendly: advertising agencies who try to portray their candidates as regular guys. [d] (chiefly in commercial use) denoting merchandise, especially food or clothing, of average, medium, or standard size: a shake and regular fries. [e] (in surfing and other board sports) with the left leg in front of the right on the board. 5 Grammar (of a word) following the normal pattern of inflection: a regular verb. 6 Geometry [a] (of a figure) having all sides and all angles equal: a regular polygon. [b] (of a solid) bounded by a number of equal figures.

The OBH strip is about regularity in sense 5 — very close to the etymological sense of rule, ‘a general principle about what is possible or allowable’, but specialized to the domain of grammar, in fact to inflectional morphology. The verb BRAKE (BSE brake – PST braked – PSP braked) is regular (in its inflectional morphology), while the verb BREAK (BSE break – PST broke – PSP broken) is irregular.

In the fourth panel, Joe introduces another sense, 2d, that’s a multiple specialization of sense 1 ‘arranged in a constant or definite pattern’, sense 1 being again close to the etymological sense of rule: arranged in a pattern of mathematically constant intervals, in fact such intervals of time (rather than space); and in fact such time intervals in the occurrence of bowel movements (which can be, um, regulated, according to conventional lore, by drinking prune juice). That’s sense 2d. Well, it’s half of sense NOAD‘s 2d, which, for the purpose of lexicographic economy, puts together the timing of bowel movements and menstrual periods, though on the basis of lexicopsychological reality the two things should certainly be treated as distinct senses.

Then in the second panel Joe gives us his version of sense 4c, which NOAD glosses as:

North American (of a person) not pretentious or arrogant; ordinary and friendly [which NOAD exemplifies with an occurrence of the conventional collocation, bordering on idiom, regular guy]

The general sense here is something like ‘behaving normatively’, which cashes out in different ways depending on the relevant reference class of people and the speaker’s experience of them. Not being pretentious or arrogant, being ordinary and friendly, are aspects of normative behavior in our culture. More specifically, for a kid like Joe in #1, a regular guy is one that’s cool and comes over to the house and plays video games and all that.

The semantic development of the senses in NOAD‘s group 4 from those in group 1 is a kind of metonymy, turning on the fact that something that occurs at regular intervals of time or space is likely to be perceived as frequent and as occurring by custom, hence as being the usual or normal thing. More generally, regularity is associated with frequency, custom, and normality, so regular comes to be used to convey ‘customary, normal’.

Further development: regular guy. An expression that evaluates someone according to their conformity to what are perceived to be the central and most salient characteristics of a guy, but someone who doesn’t stand out in any significant way.

Although regular guy has been attested in use for females, it’s mostly used for males and usually conveys normative masculinity (with all that comes with it: athleticism, competitiveness, emotional restraint, toughness, etc. though all in moderation, plus solid heterosexuality), along with openness, friendliness, fairness, and other likeable qualities, and also sociocultural averageness on a number of dimensions (celebrities, conspicuously rich people, artists and scholars, etc. will have a hard time counting as regular guys).

Closely related to, but sometimes held to be clearly distinct from, regular guy are, at least, the expressions:

ordinary guy, average guy, real guy, regular Joe

(A personal note: I am not, and have never been, a regular guy as described above, or anything close to it, though I do pretty well on the likeable qualities.)

regular guys as objects of desire. The Regular Guy is a stock character of advertising, where he is especially devoted to selling things directed to men, like tools, sports equipment, shaving accessories, and men’s clothing, in particular swim suits and underwear (both highly gendered). This last category is of special interest to me, because such apparel can be invested with not only gender content but also carnally sexual content: the display of the nearly naked male body is available as a source of pleasurable response from suitably minded viewers (of either gender), no matter how innocently it might be intended.

In brief: underwear ads are always available for service as soft porn (for straight women and gay men) — this is not even slightly a novel observation — and models presented as regular guys have figured in such advertising for a long time. (I intend to post separately on the hard (vs. soft) of hardcore porn, much as I reported on regular above, but for the moment I’ll just take the usage as given.)

From my 4/4/18 posting “More 1970s underwear”:

These [ads] were from the 1970s, when most underwear ads featured “regular guys” relating to each other as buddies (though these presentations sometimes went awry). Since then, premium men’s underwear firms have veered into porn territory, with models presenting themselves as sculpted lust objects, as in this Daily Jocks ad for Supawear from 10/27/17:


Note the seductive facial expression and inviting open mouth.

The regular-guy underwear ads of older times composed this fictive persona out of a complex fabric of elements, among them:

— the presumed setting, characterizable roughly as warm family occasions (even if RG appears alone); RG is smiling, modestly or broadly; his gaze is directed not at us, the viewers, but off to the side, on other members of his family; he might appear with a baby (presumably his), with a boy (presumably his son), with a woman (presumably his wife, also in her underwear), or with a buddy (literally his brother, or the nice guy from next door), and they’re all smiling in a friendly way

— RG is good-looking, but not movie-star handsome; he is fit, but far from a muscle-hunk — admirable but in no way remarkable

— RG is in his appearance socially unremarkable: he is white; ideally of indeterminate ethnicity (excluding even men of conventionally attractive types, like Scandinavian and Italian); and of unremarkable class status (neither elegant nor attractively street-tough)

— RG is clean-shaven (older RGs sometimes have neatly trimmed beards, but RG is never scruffy) and he has a conservative, unremarkable haircut

— very often, though RG is hanging out in his underwear, he’s not bare-chested, not down to his underpants, but is wearing a top (also on sale); in general in these ads, even if he’s bare-chested, he’s not showing off his body, just happens to be modestly undressed

— RG’s hands are never on or near his crotch, nor is his crotch thrust forward or otherwise displayed; genital sex is downplayed as much as possible

— RG’s briefs are conservative in style, not low-cut or tight or with a framed pouch, and they are usually white, certainly not vividly colored; his boxers might be unobtrusively patterned; in any case, RG’s underpants should not call attention to themselves (because that would call attention to his crotch)

Despite all this effort to present the figure of a guy in his underpants as an object of commercial but not carnal desire — you were supposed to want to buy the underwear, not do the model — these ads had a long history of functioning as soft porn for gay boys and men; after all, they showed attractive men in their underpants, their desirable genitals just a thin layer of fabric away. All praise to brands like Fruit of the Loom and Munsingwear, to department stores and other stores that advertised them, and to newspapers that carried those ads.

Then came the time of the Underwear Gods, as Don DeLillo labeled the giant public-display figures advertising sex-drenched underwear, especially men’s premium briefs (a label easily extended to the models and to the genre of advertising); see my 10/19/10 posting “Underwear gods” and my 8/14/10 AZBlogX posting “Pits ‘n’ Tits: five underwear models”, with five flagrant illustrations (including Marky Mark for Calvin Klein).

In any case, the world shifted, as you can see by looking at my Page of links to underwear postings on this blog; in certain districts of the underwear universe, all the constraints on RG depictions have been thrown out the window, and we now have things like #2, and crotch-tease shots like this one from a 11/4 Daily Jocks ad:

(#3) I dreamed I cruised for blue-collar tricks in my hot-red Breedwell Cumdump jock

Yes, Breedwell is the brand name, “Dirty by Choice” (on the waistband) its motto, and Cumdump the model name; the intention behind the model name is that the wearer is advertising himself as an indiscriminate bottom — for barebacking, if the brand name is to be taken at face value. This is at the other end of the underwear-ad universe from this recent Macy’s ad:

(#4) “men’s underwear guide: boxers or briefs”

These are RGs for the 21st century, though Boxer Guy (on the right) would have been entirely at home in the mid-20th century. Briefs Guy (on the left) has been brought up-to-date a bit — he’s black, conspicuousy muscled, and wearing briefs in an eye-catching pattern. But his stance, gaze, and facial expression are those of an old-style RG, and the display of his briefs is not at all sexualized.

Both men are bare-chested and present themselves as amiable and approachable. So if there’s still a market for RG underwear models as lust objects, they should fill this function nicely.

But wait. There’s more.

regular guys as a homomasculine type. I’ll jump right in, with a quotation from former boy-band star Lance Bass, from Christopher Rice’s article “The Myth of ‘Straight-acting'” in the 10/10/06 Advocate (p.88):

Bass: I want people to take [from my coming-out] that being gay is a norm. That the stereotypes are out the window. . . . I’ve met so many people like me that it’s encouraged me. I call them the SAGs — the straight-acting gays. We’re just normal, typical guys. I love to watch football and drink beer.

And then a letter to the Advocate, 11/7/06, p. 12, from Joel A. Brown of Akron OH:

… All  Lance Bass was trying to say was that 80% to 90% of American gay males are just regular guys, and we don’t have to go out of our way to pretend to be flamboyant for others.  God loves us just the way we are — regular or flamboyant; either way is fine.  There is no need to read any negative connotations into one or the other.  God doesn’t, why should you?

(The Advocate is an American LGBT-interest magazine.)

There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with the dichotomizing of the world of gay men; the implicit valuing of one pole over the other; the hidden assumption that some gay men’s presentations of self are just performances, pretenses. But my interest here is in the vocabulary used by Bass and the letter-writer — regular guy and straight-acting gay — both with some considerable history, not at all original to these guys, but conveniently packaged together in this Advocate material.

A fairly recent take of my own on the types of homomasculinity, from my 2/10/17 posting “Annals of adorable”, about the actors Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, an adorable married couple who are fools for kissing, in public or anywhere:

Presentations of self. In unstudied interactions, when they are not acting characters, NPH and DB present themselves rather differently. In these contexts, NPH is normatively masculine — not swaggeringly male, like his character Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, but just unremarkably masculine; you wouldn’t guess he’s gay (unless he talked about his life).

[The standard label for such a presentation is straight-acting, which I find deeply offensive. Some men who present this way refer to themselves as regular guys, which I still find problematic, because it seems to treat other men as deviant, abnormal. Here I’ll refer to such guys — bear in mind that I’m one of them — as NMGs, for ‘normatively masculine gays’, though you might want to treat that label as an orphan initialism, unmoored from its historical source, now just a label for a certain kind of person.]

DB, on the other hand, you’d peg almost immediately as gay, mostly from his facial expressions and a bit from his body language. It’s subtle, but to my eyes, unmistakable. He’s not nelly. He’s a type of gay man for which we have no standard label; I’ve come to refer to such men as pleasantly gay. (I have NMG friends, pleasantly gay friends, nelly friends, macho gay friends too; the world of gay men is diverse and complex.)

normatively masculine is a somewhat desperate label for men who get pegged as straight because they fail to give off signals that allow them easily to be identified as not straight; a great many of us NMGs are manifestly not literally normatively masculine, but we end up being taken for straight because of lingering effects of a belief in Natural Heterosexuality, the idea that everyone is by nature heterosexual and that homosexual desire and behavior are rare perversions of the natural order: aberrations, anomalies, disorders, malignities, whatever.

So lots of gay guys are taken for straight, are then said to be “passing for straight”, or to be “straight-acting” — because they give off no screaming alarm signals. These guys don’t form a coherent class;  some of them are poignantly conscious of being set apart from other men and having to forge a life that is assembled on the fly rather than following a familiar pattern; some believe they are entirely like normatively behaving straight men, differing from them only in the object of their sexual desires; and lots of things in between.

It’s hard to imagine what would be suitable label for this miscellany. In my 2017 posting I rejected regular guys and straight-acting gays, opting instead for an orphan initialism NMG — suggesting normatively masculine gay without committing  to the details.

Fortunately, this whole discussion is about categories and labels in a kind of technical analysis of the world of homomasculinity; I can get through a lot of daily life in ordinary English without needing to make these distinctions. But I do talk about my sexuality identity and for this I need everyday labels: at the basic level, homosexual, gay, queer, fag(got).

I’ve been working on reclaiming fag(got) for some years now. But increasingly I find myself up against some lexical matters that I hadn’t appreciated when I started the campaign.

Flying the fag. One manifestation: in conversation with an lgbtq friend, I’ll refer to myself as a fag, only to have them interrupt and say, in a tone of friendly correction, something like “But no one would know you’re gay”. So fag / faggot for them means something like ‘effeminate(ly) gay’ and so ‘obviously, identifiably gay’; it’s in the neighborhood of nelly, flamboyant, flaming / flamer, queen, sissy, and (especially) fem(me) (as opposed to butch).

I was then surprised to discover that this usage, specific to the lgbtq community, was not recorded in GDoS, which had only two subsenses: (orig. US) ‘a male homosexual’ (primarily used as an insult against such men, many of whom were assumed to be femme / nelly by nature, mincing and shrieking and offering their buttocks for intercourse); and (US campus/teen) ‘an offensive or unpopular person’.

Eventually I had a gay male acquaintance explain that fags / faggots were “the bad queers, the ones that give gay men a bad name” — it’s the fags and the freaks prancing around in revealing black leather. The visible ones.

Here I offer up a chant of praise for the New Yorker writer Hilton Als, who is, among many other things, the chronicler of his identity as a black femme gay man, a black faggot. I hope to post more on Als and on other admirable faggots (in this narrow sense), but for the moment I can cite my 9/11/19 posting “Giovanni in Ferragamo”.



2 Responses to “A regular festival of ambiguity”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I was a bit surprised to see definition 3[e] (“complete, absolute”) labeled “dated”, but maybe that’s because I myself am kind of dated.

  2. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at irregular versus regular, as a queer word […]

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