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  • Tuesday, June 21, 2005


    My Own Private Homosexual Agenda

    I think language is a fine and wonderful thing. Words are an excellent form of communication. There is a reason why I keep adding to my ongoing series Will Geek for Words: I love words. I love their sounds, their history, their ability to be quite precise and to be very general.

    That being said, I'm not a purist about words. I don't think words are static. Their definitions are not frozen in place. Language is a dynamic creature, changed by social winds and eddies. Slang is not something I fear; it is essential to the revitalization of language. The evolving usage, the vibrant flowering of new words and new meanings for old words indicates a society seeking new tools for communicating thoughts, concepts, and visions. Only the dead have a language that never changes.

    Dictionaries are, at best, a feeble attempt to cage the words we use. Dictionaries are like a well-drawn picture of a nude model in an art class; everything is very recognizable yet it is only a pale two dimensional copy of the actual living and breathing model. Dictionaries are compiled by human editors to sell in the marketplace of books. They are edited for a particular audience, usually the broadest and most general audience possible. To appeal to a broad group, they often try to be as inoffensive as possible. Thus the word "fuck" was not included in mainstream dictionaries until the 1960s and even now is often left out of most dictionaries. This despite the fact that its literary usage goes back over 500 years and is undoubtedly older than that.

    So I come to the goad for writing this post, Gays are not gays! by Cynthia A. Janak on Renew America. I feel sorry for the poor dear. She thinks she is acting as an arbiter of word usage. I believe she imagines herself a brave gatekeeper taking a stand on intolerable language creep, on mutable meaning, and on the sly subversion of plainly obvious words. Oh, pity the innocent words thus scarred and enslaved to perversion!
    Okay people I have had it with all this gay bashing. These people are not gay they are homosexuals, plain and simple. Let me give everyone a lesson in the definition of these two terms. I am going to use a dictionary that was published in the 1942. I don't care what the terms mean today. I am looking at the historical value behind the terms.

    This is taken from the "Webster's 20th Century Dictionary of the English Language":

    Gay - ga y, a. [ME. gay; Ofr. gai, O.H.G. gahi, quick, sudden, rash, lively.]
    1. - Merry, airy, jovial, sportive, frolicsome. It denotes more live and animation that cheerful.
    Belinda smiled and all the world was gay. - Alexander Pope.
    2. - Fine, showy; as, a gay dress.
    3. - Inflamed or merry with liquor, intoxicated, dissipated. [Colloq.]
    Syn. - Merry, lively, blithe, sprightly, sportive, hilarious.

    Ho "mo -sex'u -ä l - a. [Homo-, and L. sexualis, from sexus, sex] Of or pertaining to homosexuals or homosexuality, characterized by sexual inclination toward the same sex.

    Ho "mo -sex'u -ä l - n. In psychology and psychiatry, one whose emotions, feelings and desires are concerned with the individual's own sex rather than with the opposite sex.

    Ho "mo -sex'u -ä l' î -ty - n. In psychology and psychiatry, sexual feeling for or interest in an individual of one's own sex: sexual perversion; also, as a step in psychosexual development, the normal interest in and concern for a member of one's own sex seen in normal friendship, if carried beyond this stage, it becomes pathological and perverted, depending on its substitution for heterosexual love and its manner of sexual expression.

    In this dictionary there were no other definitions for gay. I printed exactly what was in the Webster's 1942 edition. If you do not like the definitions then too bad. Deal with it. I write only with truth and fact, historical and present. I will not shade or twist what the truth is.
    As I noted above, a dictionary is often a poor indicator of actual usage of words. Webster's, while a fine dictionary in many ways, is in no way a definitive authority for all meanings of the word gay. The following is from Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson (New York: Crown Publishing, 1989). I'm uncertain whether it is authoritative but it certainly sheds a little more light on the use of the word. I have slightly abridged this entry.
    gay. [...]The homosexual sense of gay derives from the word's use in the heterosexual underworld. Thus, back in the 1600s, a dissipated or immoral man might be described as a gay fellow, and in the 1800s, a gay bit (or woman) was a prostitute, who might be said to lead the gay life, to live and work in a gay house, and to gay it when copulating (men could gay it, too). What happened was that in London, New York, and other large cities in the nineteenth century, prostitutes and homosexuals, both outgroups, frequently lived in close association and used the same lingo. Gay's first appearance in a dictionary in its homosexual sense is in N. Ersine's Underworld & Prison Slang, of 1935: "Geycat ... a homosexual boy." As far back as 1889, however, at the time of the Cleveland Street Scandal (involving post office boys in a male brothel in London's West End), a prostitute named John Saul used gay with reference to both male homosexuals and to female prostitutes when giving evidence to the police and in court...
    I'm sure Ms. Janak would find a way to dismiss this evidence because decent, respectable people did not use the word gay in these senses. And so I return to my point: words evolve, they percolate, and sometimes they are adapted by a subgroup or tribe of people for a while. The word changes the way coal under pressure changes into diamonds. The word transforms, tests it's new variant meaning out between friends, colleagues, gang members. For some reason, society needs this new meaning, needs this description of a thing or an event or an action. Suddenly, the word blooms, blossoms on a thousand tongues and spreads wildly. This is the joy of language. This is the gift of words. This is the renewal of communication.

    [Update 9/17/2005: An interesting addition to this is a related entry on "homo" in Wicked Words where the author relates that homosexual only dates to 1892, fifty years before the Webster's entry Ms. Janak references. Also of interest is the fact that the word homosexual is a linguistic bastard/hybrid. Homo is Greek (meaning same) while sexualis is Latin. Put another way, the word she holds up as the verbal essence of historical description isn't any older than the use of gay to describe certain people and acts. It is arguably younger. Of course, that isn't the point of her piece; the point is asserting control of language and making a statement for like-minded people to rally around. I get the feeling Ms. Janak would much prefer to use words like sodomite and pervert but, in the spirit of compromise, is willing to use homosexual in polite company.]

    (tip o' the mouse to Peek and Sadly, No!)

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