Monday, May 9, 2011

What Do You Mean By That?

That's so gay.

Let's start there.

In my own lifetime (long by the standards of my children, short by the standards of - say - dinosaurs) I have watched that word mean happy, then homosexual, and now - well - I guess in the incarnation stated above it sort of means stupid.

People get really excited about this - like - if someone calls something gay - when they mean that it's stupid - that they are implying that to be homosexual is to be stupid. I'll be honest. My hackles are raised when I hear people saying 'that's so gay'. I simply cannot hear myself using that particular word in that particular way.

But am I being a bleeding-heart liberal reactionist? (It's ok if you say yes. It wouldn't be the first time and I've certainly been called worse.) I've started to wonder that myself. The word is changing - evolving. It doesn't mean what it once did. On the Simpsons episode Lisa's Date With Density (original air date 12/15/96) Jimbo says to Nelson (he says) "You kissed a girl? That's so gay." Hmmmm. Definitely not implying homosexuality there... of course that was intended as a joke, but it wasn't very far-fetched.

Maybe you think my line of reasoning is retarded.

Hey! There's another one! Another example of an evolving word as well as another example of something that raises my hackles. I would never use the term retarded when I meant to say stupid. But again - this is a word that has changed in my lifetime. In my day, mentally retarded was a diagnosis. It was nothing to giggle about, and it was not a put down. Retarded means slow and someone who was mentally retarded was simply someone who took a little bit longer to think about/learn things. It wasn't a negative term, it was a neutral, descriptive term. I used it clinically all the time. Then I learned to put the person before the disability - merely a semantic difference, to be sure, but we all know, if we think about it, that semantics matter. So I would no longer say I was working with a mentally retarded child, I would say I was working with a child with mental retardation. That was not a mean thing to say.

And then suddenly it was.

I read a blog a while ago (I have LONG forgotten where, or I would link it) where a woman who had a child with Downs Syndrome was having a tirade because someone had referred to her daughter as retarded. She said, "sure, it takes her longer to learn things, but that's no reason to call her retarded." Um - I'm pretty sure that's precisely the reason to call her retarded - or , more accurately- to say that she has retardation. Someone mentioned that in her comments and people ripped him a new one - how could he be so ignorant? This was a beautiful, loving child. How could he say something so awful about her?


I guess that word had transformed more completely than I'd thought.

At least gay still DOES mean homosexual in most circles - even if people may not specifically be using that definition of it when they say 'that's so gay'. (It NEVER means 'happy' or 'bright' anymore. That meaning has been completely obliterated) Retarded apparently has nothing to do with the clinical condition of being a slow learner anymore. It is just a pure and simple cut.

I was teaching a class once and we were talking about a particular birth defect. One of the symptoms of this was mild to moderate retardation. I remember stumbling over the word when I had to say it in class the way my children tell me their teachers stumble over the word 'nigger' when it appears in literature they're reading. (I can only imagine. Thank goodness I never had to teach a course where THAT was necessary! I stumbled just typing it...) Even when it (retardation - not that other one - which I'm not going to type again) is not being used in a derogatory sense, it has apparently evolved so much that the original meaning has been lost and what is left is ugly.

I do make a more than tiny effort to be politically correct - so these words - when they are used negatively - still do have an effect on me.

I don't like them. They make me uncomfortable.

I'm not alone.

There are multi-media campaigns out there to get us to stop saying 'that's so gay' or 'that's so retarded'. People care about this. People care about words. Words are powerful.

But I wonder...

Should we just back off a little bit and let the words naturally evolve?

I just finished reading The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch. If you dig words, you might enjoy it. (See what I did there? Dig? I'm relatively certain no one pictured anything involving a shovel or a backhoe when I used that term. It's outdated slang, sure, but the meaning was clear - even though it has nothing to do with the original meaning of the word.) He does not cite any examples of 'gay' or 'retarded', but I found myself thinking about those two words a lot as I read this book. They're changing. My outrage may boil down to much ado about nothing (as righteous outrage so often does, in the grand scheme of things).

An example, taken from the above mentioned book, p. 193:

The word nice shows just how far a common word can drift from its etymon. The root is the Latin nescire 'to be ignorant'..........When nice made its first appearance in English, around the year 1300, it meant "foolish, silly, simple." These senses died out in the seventeenth century, but along the way nice had picked up a new group of meanings, including "wanton, dissolute, lascivious" and "Precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct; scrupulous, punctilious."

Starting late in the sixteenth century, the "scrupulous" meaning evolved into "refined, cultured; associated with polite society," then into "respectable, virtuous, decent," a sense first cited from one of Jane Austen's letters from 1799: "The Biggs would call her a nice woman." Shortly before Austen was born, nice also came to mean "That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory"; from there it was only a short jump to "pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured," first attested in 1797, and the meaning that most people assume nice has always had.


Once upon a time, if I referred to you as nice, it would mean that I was essentially calling you out as a whore.


I have a prediction. I think the next word to make the shift will be special.

You heard it here first.

I could be wrong (it happens), but I'm probably not.

Special. Different, unique, unexpected. Sort of like queer.


Words are like us - they grow, they evolve, they shift.

For some reason, my earworm, as I write this, is: History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men ~Blue Oyster Cult, Godzilla.

Just me?


(And because I like you, here is an incredibly groovy version of said song. Shout out to my college peeps......)

(And because I know a bass player or two are reading - a more recent version. No 3:00 am bowls or paper mache monster drummers, but a Rudy Sarzo solo that is too fun to miss.)

And that's why you have to like me. Because I can start out talking about currently controversial words, quote a lengthy etymological reference as well as the Simpsons and wrap it up with not one but two Blue Oyster Cult videos and somehow make it all fit.

Well, it all fits in my mind, anyway...


Teresa said...

Oh, IT FITS! Good stuff. Btw, I had to get down off my chair in order to type this. :)

Hello Jodi said...

Word. (heh)

Anonymous said...

I don't like either of those phrases...but I don't get too bent out of shape about it b/c 1.) they don't mean it (usuallY) in a bad way and 2.) another word I don't like will be right around the corner.

Anita said...

I've broken my kids from saying retarded, it was a mis-used word, and I think it just was easy to say, and not really use good words, descriptive mind expanding words.
The "that's so gay" line not bothers more than ever, because I do have a gay daughter, and so instead of getting all huffy, we sort of joke and say "really?" and anyone who knows us, says oh ooops, and we make them think about it.
Great post Tammy.........done as only you can do!!