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Friday, 18 October 2013

The meaning of Gay



I was doing some light dusting, the radio on in the background. They were discussing Will Young, who had approached the Education Secretary over the relatively new, derogatory use of the word ‘Gay’ in schools i.e. ‘That is so gay’ or ‘those shoes are gay’.

He has statistics ‘show 23% of young gay people attempt suicide and 56% will self harm.’ These are worrying statistics but I find it hard to reconcile them with a linguistic eddy over another layer of meaning in the word ‘Gay’. I would imagine there is much more direct verbal abuse, as unacceptable as even more serious on-line bullying. His suggestion that teachers should be ‘trained’ to stamp it out in the playground will have as much success as Canute ordering the tide to go back.

Language changes and officialdom – even French officialdom – has little success in stopping it. I’m old enough to remember when ‘Gay’ gained its new meaning. I remember the varying reactions, ranging from the ‘intrigued’ to the ‘irritated’ that a fine old English word could never be used again without this new connotation. To dance with ‘gay abandon’ took on an entirely new meaning. 

But then ‘Gay’ had been such a piffly little word, old but underused. Now it became turbo-charged culturally and politically. The language had changed. 

And it changes again. In a new world ‘wicked’ and ‘bad’ have an extra layer of meaning. ‘That’s wicked’ or ‘that’s bad’ means exactly the reverse, depending on context. The word ‘Gay’ has taken on the same fate.
I don’t know. It may have begun as consciously homophobic – some gay-baiting master-mind injecting it like a virus into the playground. Somehow I doubt it, but then again language is hard to pin down. 

Whatever the origin of the changed use of ‘Gay’ I doubt that its casual use in today’s playground is consciously homophobic, but I accept it has tainted a ‘brand’. The word ‘Gay’ was bravely appropriated to mean something proud. This extra layer of meaning is unfortunate, but what is appropriated can sometimes be re-appropriated in unexpected ways. In ten or twenty years ‘gay’ may have an entirely new layer of meaning with or without teachers being re-trained. 

Will Young has every right to express his concern, and use his minor celebrity status to approach the Secretary of State for Education, but he should also be aware of its dangers. Writing as a teacher with some experience of playground politics I fear such pleadings to officialdom for special treatment reinforces the concept of ‘victim,’ – a far more tainted brand and something Gay Pride resisted from its inception.

10 comments:

Maria Zannini said...

We have the same problem here. People are always trying to legislate 'correct' behavior. But there are plenty of laws to thwart bullying. All we have to do is enforce them--and punish the perpetrators without leniency.

Mike Keyton said...

You can't legislate 'correct' behaviour - or at least you shouldn't. As Edmund Burke put it: 'Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them the laws depend.'

Similarly you can't or shouldn't legislate language.

Claudia Del Balso said...

In high school I learned that the word "gay" was equivalent to happy (what is now considered old English) LOL!
I am careful when and how I use this word nowadays since it could be politically incorrect (or correct). There are too many sensitive people in the world.

nikki broadwell said...

thought provoking blog, Mike. it's interesting how words change meaning over time...remember when 'we had a gay time' meant 'fun'? no more using that word...and thank you for commenting on my blog--I always appreciate what you have to say...

Mike Keyton said...

Thing is, Claudia, it's always best to speak your mind with a nod to good manners. It's pointless to second guess those who want to take offense.

Mike Keyton said...

Thanks, Nikki. I'm always intrigued by the post writing process, which is why I enjoy your various strategms. It seems hard work and imagination are called for :)

LD Masterson said...

I fear outlawing a word only gives it more power, and even if it could be eliminated from our language, another will simply take its place.

Jeanne said...

My sister's name is Gay, a lovely English name. When the meaning changed (was it in the 70's?) she endured ignorant comments from some of the insensitive louts in her small town. Since then, she has been known by her middle name, Diane, which is also a lovely name. Still, it's a pity.

Mike Keyton said...

Interesting comment, Jeanne. The word is now a two edged sword. That's the problem and the glory of language. It doesn't take prisoners - and I don't think it should be stopped in that respect. Mind you it doesn't help having it wielded by the sub literate. During a recent paedophile crisis in this country a paediatrician in Newport had her surgery door daubed with paedo scum. I'm sure the world has always been so interesting.

Mike Keyton said...

Too right, Linda. Until 1984 arrives (and I fear 'newspeak' is almost upon us) unrestricted language is a right to be preserved.