Sunday, March 23, 2008

The changing face of "gay"

Here's an interesting article about playground and classroom insults on the BBC magazine site, tracing the nature of abuse and the ways in which gay has become the insult of choice for teenagers and younger kids. Linguists including Tony Thorne - an expert on slang usage - and Clive Upton explore the ways in which the word has changed meaning over time and how it's used today.

The word has had many meanings over the centuries, often sexual, says Clive Upton, professor of Modern English Language at Leeds University.

"In the early 19th Century it was used to refer to women who lived off immoral earnings," he says. Around the 1970s it was claimed by the homosexual community as a descriptive term for their sexual orientation, now its most popular meaning. By the 1980s it was finding its way into schools as a playground insult.

"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral.

So, is gay used homophobically or is it now a generally pejorative term with no real link to sexuality? Can an essay be gay? Or is just people who can be gay?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

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