What do words actually mean? When we want to work out what a word means, we tend to turn to a dictionary, but even in there we might find that multiple meanings are offered. And that's because semantic change - a gradual (or in some cases, very rapid) shift of meaning - occurs over time.
In a really interesting book called Words in Time, Geoffrey Hughes looks at how language change is linked to social change, and examines how words that we use now used to mean something very different a long time ago.
For example, in a section on what he calls the "moralization of status-words" he identifies a time in the Middle English period when "words such as noble and villain change from being terms denoting rank to terms which are evaluative of moral conduct". On the good side, we get noble, gentle, frank, free and liberal, but on the bad side, he goes on to explain, "words which originally denoted inferior social status become terms of disapproval", so we get villain, knave, blackguard, wretch, slave and churl.
Of course, what has driven these words to change is a link between someone's social rank in a hierarchical society and perceptions of those people as being good or bad because of their rank. In essence, if you were working class and poor, you tended to be seen as a lower, less moral kind of person, so the words used to label you tended to shift down the scale of meaning from neutral to pejorative as time went on, while the opposite was true for the richer and higher status people. Quite why an accident of birth should make you a good or a bad person is not clear, but as we know, judgements are easy to make and it's often simpler to denigrate people beneath you on the social ladder than those above who you might one day aspire to be part of.
That's why - to this very day - you will never hear me utter a bad word about David Cameron, George Osborne or those trust-fund Wurzels*, Mumford and Sons.
Not all meaning changes are linked to gradual processes of social change and shifts in attitudes; sometimes they are more rapid. The flipping of ill, sick, bad and wicked are all examples of where a more drastic change has occurred, with a deliberate effort to turn a word into its opposite. I'm old enough to remember genuine confusion on the faces of elderly relatives when they heard something good described as 'sick'. Nowadays, even your mum is demonstrating 'wicked tekkers' when she juggles an i-Phone in one hand and a glass of fizzy wine in the other.
But what about words which are contested? Some words have changed over time to pick up extremely negative connotations: words like hussy and slut, queer and gay. While gay has had quite a long association with sexual appetite, its widespread use as a term to describe (and put down) men who love other men is perhaps more recent, reaching a peak in the 1980s and 90s. Gay then moved on to be a catch-all term of abuse. Trousers were gay (maybe because they looked slightly feminine in style, or perhaps too tight). Chairs were gay (perhaps a bit wonky to sit on or defective in some way). I even set homeworks that were described by my classes as gay.
But is gay homophobic? In other words, can (as Ricky Gervais rather weakly argued with the term mong) the word gay now be seen as having moved so far away from its association with sexuality and negative judgements about others' sexual identities, that it's just another word? Stonewall, the gay rights charity, don't think so and their campaign to address homophobic name-calling and bullying aims to "get the meaning straight".
Brendan O'Neill, a man with a history of provocative articles to his name and a tendency to attack Political Correctness whenever he can, doesn't think so. He argues in today's Daily Telegraph that "gay now means rubbish" and, echoing Stonewall's previous campaign, adds "Get over it".
Is it as simple as either side suggest? Language change doesn't happen at once. Most processes take a while to sink in. They tend to follow a pattern that we often see as a wave (as in C.J.Bailey's wave theory of 1973) with changes spreading out from one core group to wider society as time goes on, like ripples create by a stone thrown into a pond. This means that:
a) it takes time for a new meaning to spread to a group of people at the edge of the pond (perhaps older people who have a meaning that they grew up with - The Flintstones and having a "gay old time" perhaps)
b) by the time a change has spread to the edges, the frequency of the use might have dropped off in the centre and a new meaning started to emerge
Interestingly, as Justyna Robinson identifies in her paper on cognitive linguistics and semantic change, Awesome insights into semantic variation, "conceptual links" often exist between the successive senses of a word, so in this case, the semantic shift from gay as "Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy" (OED 1225) has a clear link to "light-hearted, carefree; manifesting, characterized by, or disposed to joy and mirth; exuberantly cheerful, merry; sportive." (OED 1400) and "Originally of persons and later also more widely: dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic. Also (esp. in to go gay ): uninhibited; wild, crazy; flamboyant." (OED 1597).
It doesn't take much of a conceptual leap to then get to gay as being involved in the selling of sex (OED 1795 -) and "(a) Of a person: homosexual; (b) (of a place, milieu, way of life, etc.) of or relating to homosexuals" (OED 1922-) before we reach gay as lame or crap via association with a stigmatised group in society.
While Brendan O'Neill claims we should so get over how gay has changed to mean something he views as largely inoffensive, I'd argue that it doesn't just mean one thing at all; it actually means many different things at the same time and that in a pluralistic society we need to be careful to think about how words might carry different meanings for different people.
So, where do you stand on this? Is gay now free of its abusive and homophobic connotations to most people? Is Stonewall just being too sensitive about offending people? Or is there a good argument for suggesting that gay is loaded with negative associations and not yet ready for rehabilitation as a general term of disapproval?
(*copyright Charlie Brooker)
HT to Clarissa for link to Pink News article.