Monday, June 19, 2006

What does "gay" mean?

Last night, on Radio 4's Feedback programme, I discovered that in addition to it meaning "homosexual", the word "gay" is currently being used to mean "rubbish". The reason this featured on the programme was to discuss whether it was acceptable to use the word like this when it might be considered offensive to homosexuals.

At one stage, "gay" had an innocent role meaning: "cheery: bright and pleasant; promoting a feeling of cheer". It became a word meaning: "homosexual". I don't believe anybody was consulted about this redefinition. I agree that if people don't understand the way in which a word is being used it needs to be explained - jargon is always a barrier to communication - but words are no more owned by the homosexual community - or any other minority - than they are by anybody else.

One of the people interviewed wondered whether words describing other sections of the community had become terms of abuse, and how other groups might react to this. Well, two such words came to mind very quickly. The first is "liberal", and is now generally used to refer to somebody politically to the left of me - though this is low-key enough that few people would regard this as a term of abuse. However, the word "fundamentalist" is now almost universally regarded as a term of abuse. It originally meant somebody who aligned themselves with a publication called "The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth" - but it is now used as a term meaning "somebody so far politically or religiously to the right of me that there is little point in debating with them".

I would have thought that critical thinking is of greater importance than the way in which language is used. People need to understand that choice of words evokes a particular reaction. Why do sections of the homosexual community object to using the word "gay" to mean "rubbish"? Is it because they want to maintain the association with the meaning "cheery: bright and pleasant"? So is their objection to the new use of the word any less arbitrary than the way in which they choose to use it? Why, for that matter, did "The Brights" choose that particular adjective to describe themselves, rather than (say) "The Dims", "The Electrodes" or "The Porches"?

As Humpty Dumpty said: "When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean; neither more, nor less."