Posts Tagged usage

Giving gay its due

 There is this friend of mine who always introduces himself thus: “I’m —– and I’m gay.” A ‘straight’ acquaintance once asked him, “If being gay is as natural as being straight, why do you have to announce it? I don’t tell the world I’m straight!” I have no idea what my friend said in response; the question was rhetorical anyway, so I don’t suppose any answer would’ve mattered! Clearly, the rhetorical interrogator was not clued in to reading acts of defiant assertion.

No, I’m not about to launch into a polemic on gay identity.  One home truth (from Wittgenstein, no less!) this blog adheres to is: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. My interest, as always, is in words. And this time the word is gay. (No pun intended.)

The inspiration for this post is a bizzare find-and-replace gaffe that produced these headlines:

Image courtesy: Language Log

All those headlines refer to an article about Tyson Gay, a US sprinter, and his performance in the US Olympic trials. The news story appeared originally on a web site run by a conservative Christian group that advocates, among other things presumably, homophobia. Which is perhaps why they’d replaced all occurrences of “gay” with “homosexual”. You can read about this story that’s caused mirth waves on the blogosphere here, here, and here.

Having been an editor myself, I thought I’d give the guys a fair trial,  try and understand why they’d have wanted to change “gay” to “homosexual”.  Ergo this etymological investigation. 

Today “gay” is preferred over “homosexual”; apparently the APA style also recommends it. That’s because “homosexual” has a dry, clinical connotation of deviance; it describes a man entirely in terms of his sexual partners.  Obviously a narrow and de-humanising definition. 

“Gay”, on the other hand, supposedly carries connotations of an entire  lifestyle, a culture, a way-of-being as it were, not just sexuality. A secret password that homosexual males used to help them identify each other has now become their liberating community name. 

So using “homosexual” for “gay” is an obvious ploy to insult. 

But there is another school of thought, the political-correctness brigade, which believes that using “gay” to refer to lesbians is male chauvinism. “Homosexual” would be the gender-neutral term. Aha!

In fact there are lesbians who object to being called gay. “We’re not gay, we’re angry,” some lesbian activists are reported to have said. (For the life of me I don’t remember where I read this, so it will have to go unacknowledged.) An obvious reference to the fact that lesbians are doubly discriminated against, being women and homosexual, and are therefore worse off than their male counterparts.  So the web site’s find-and-replace operation might just have been political correctness gone awry!  (Another reminder, if you ask me, that the computer can certainly help you type, but cannot write for you. )

But to return to the larger question I’m trying to address here – is “gay” really a more positive term than “homosexual”?

Originally,  the word was an adjective meaning ‘joyful or light-hearted’, with no baggage of connotations. Dictionary research tells me the word is French in origin (gai) but that the source of the French word is unknown. And it’s an old word – the earliest usage can be traced as far back as  to  Chaucer’s work (that’s 14th century for the, um, literarily challenged.)

Today the word is used almost exclusively to mean ‘male homosexual’. Now, a semantic transformation of this kind is the result of changing usage over time.  A quick look, then, at all those connotations over the centuries that have gone into making “gay” a liberating and humane word. Dave Wilton over at the Word Origins web site has some fascinating research on this – read it.

For those who want it all served up on a platter here – surprisingly, the original meaning of gay (joyful) is about the only positive connotation it has had over the centuries !

… an earlier sense of gay meaning addicted to pleasure, self-indulgent, or immoral … dates back to at least 1637.

By the early 19th century it had developed into a euphemism for prostitution.

And the modern day gay … is probably derived from the late 19th century slang term ‘gay cat’ … meaning a boy or young man who accompanies an older, more experienced tramp, with the implication of sexual favors being exchanged for protection and instruction  (Wilton)

The associations with sexuality and immorality are unmistakable.  Given all this, I can’t help wondering, is “homosexual” perhaps a less pejorative term than “gay”?!

Perhaps positive connotations for “gay” stem only from its original lexical meaning. Unfortunately, you just cannot call someone gay today without lifting straight eyebrows.

Language, I tell you, has a life of its own.


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Back from … er … nowhere

I know. The blog has been silent for over a month. I offer only my stunningly original philosophy as explanation: I blog when I have something worthwhile to say, not because I have a blog. Ha!

It was vacation time last month and I was generally, languorously, indulging my latent laziness. That explains a lot doesn’t it? But there was work, too. Trying to keep junior in good humour and out of trouble, mostly. Anyone dare suggest that isn’t work? (I’m rolling up my sleeves …)

Midway during the vacation I attended a “do” on Intellectual Property Rights. One of those government-sponsored things for us government wallahs.  Now, in academia which is where I belong, these “do’s” are called workshops and/or seminars.  No, I’m not going to digress into IPR (this blog has a focus and all that). Suffice it to say it was informative and I came away more knowledgeable about patents, copyrights, international patent laws, etc., than I was.

I mention this only because I’m troubled by the word “workshop”. Should it have been called a seminar?

The two terms are used interchangeably in academia to mean a meeting where ideas and information are discussed and exchanged. However, in a workshop the emphasis is on skills, techniques, and problem-solving. And one expects to get hands-on training on those skills and techniques. A seminar, on the other hand, involves intense, advanced study of a subject by a small group of researchers. There’s clearly a difference between the two.

So when you go to a “workshop” expecting to learn skills and instead find yourself bombarded by speaker after speaker holding forth, monologue after monologue, on a subject, one is, shall we say, at a loss for words. 

I wonder if it’s because we don’t realize this difference that our academic programmes, whether we call them workshops, seminars, symposia or conferences, are boring, monologic, paper-reading sessions. And therefore sources of much amusement and derision.

Fixing a word down to exactly what it means and then finding that the meaning is at variance with what is intended, with usage, can be … well … detrimental to one’s health!  While in this vein, here are a couple names of shops I saw recently in my city:

  • Stay Teen: For a beauty parlour I’d say this is a singularly unimaginative name. For one thing, it would put older customers off. And, seriously, don’t they know all the unglamorous problems that go with the teens? Acne, pimples, unwanted hair, puppy fat …
  •  Book Sea: I suppose I know what the owner of this bookshop is trying to say, through this rather ambitious name, about the shop. But there’s something odd about this adjectival use of “book”. I mean, yes, we do say book club and book shop and book lovers and the like … and yet, book sea? Meaning, metaphorically, a sea of books, or vast numbers of books? It doesn’t sound right somehow.

Beats me why people would want to exaggerate so when trying to sell something. Nothing is as convincing as the truth.

A friend tells me I tend to read things too literally, being from a literature background. Sigh! They’re not the same thing at all. But there’s really no point in trying to tell him that, is there?

I wish I could tell him that literature does other things for me. It helps me imagine, and thereby understand, the other. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz puts it:

I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better businessperson or a better lover but even a better person.

(This is from his acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Award of Letters, 2007. Read the entire piece here.)


A new semester of teaching begins for me, bringing me a new group of eager young men and women, and, hopefully, much more grist for this (blog)mill!


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Mother language, slang, grammar, and other driftwood

February 18. That’s when I last posted. And much water has passed under the bridge since then. Mother Language Day, for one, which passed by on 22 February. Not uneventfully, for I got my kid to promise early that morning that he would henceforth speak only his mother language at home.

So I waited eagerly for him after school that day, hallucinating fondly about how he would say “Hi Mom! I’m back!” in his mother language.  I held my breath as he kicked the door open in his usual filmy style. And this is what he said:  “Do you know the opposite of ‘It rocks’?”  My breath froze.  He continued relentlessly, “It’s ‘It sucks'” The breath went into rigor mortis. (The kid often puts me in a spot with his questions, which I’ve written about before, here.)

Quite dispassionately he proceeded to illustrate the expressions (got teaching blood in his veins, does the little man) by listing out things that rock and things that suck (according to him). My breath thawed as I heard me mentioned in  his list of things that rock. As for what else figured on that list, well suffice it to say I wasn’t in very good company. The good company was all in his list of things that suck. The breath vaporized.   

I’m not against slang. In fact, I’m aware that ‘sucks’ is not even considered a swear word in the US where it’s used even by children. 

When Electroluux first marketed their vacuum cleaners in the US, their slogan was, “Nothing sucks like an Electroluux!” Apparently, the Swedish-speaking people who created that slogan didn’t know that in American slang, “suck” also means “to be bad”. (Source) Or maybe they did know, and it was meant to be a joke!!

The origin of this slang use of ‘sucks’ is imitative in nature, according to the OED, and I’m sure it’s obvious what it ‘imitates’, so I won’t mention it. I really don’t think it’s possible to use the word without evoking the reference; even my son giggles when he uses it, though he doesn’t know the actual reference. I hope!

More driftwood that floated by was National Grammar Day in the US on March 4. An occasion that most self-respecting language blogs chose to treat with disdain.  There’s actually a Society for the Protection of Good Grammar (SPOGG); check it out here. Their blog is good fun:

My own attitude to grammar is ambivalent; I’m sometimes punctilious and sometimes not.  Nathan  Bierma puts it better than I can in the Chicago Tribune :

I confess: I’m one of those people who cares about the difference between a gerund and a participle, between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause. This puts me in a tiny minority of deranged grammatical eccentrics — people you should generally try to avoid.
But most of the time — when we’re among friends, family, or anyone we feel comfortable with — we should simply let our hair down and allow our unpolished emissions of language to burst out of us in all their untidy splendor.

A little schizophrenic  perhaps? Speaking grammar with yourself and English with friends and family. (Read the entire piece here.)

Grammar is not dead in India; perhaps it’s the only thing that’s alive in English classrooms.  Last week a friend called to ask me how I teach my kid the Future Tense. (Apparently this monstrosity was being forced upon his 7-year-old kid in school!) I don’t, I told him. My kid knows how to tell me that he’s going to watch the cricket match on TV tomorrow instead of going to school. That’s all that matters, right?

And the final piece of driftwood before I sail out of this blog – another punctuation mark, the interrobang. Unfortunately, WordPress does not allow me to type it out, so here  it is on Wikipedia; it’s a combination of a question mark and an exclamation mark, with the one superimposed on the other. Similar in function to ?!

What the  . . . ?! I’ll continue to use this, thank you. Don’t we have enough trouble with existing punctuation marks ?! 

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Yo is relieved of sex

Dennis Baron reports the arrival of a new gender-neutral pronoun, Yo.

What’s that? Well, I’ll let you read his explanation: 

Yo is a gender-neutral pronoun because it’s used both for males and females. As the name implies, gender-neutral pronouns are ones which contain no indication of the gender of their referent. In English, all our first and second person pronouns are gender neutral: I, me, my, mine, we, our, ours, you, your, yours. None of these words says anything about sex. Third-person plural pronouns are gender neutral too: they, their, theirs. Get it?

But for some crazy reason, our third person singular pronouns ooze sex: he is masculine; she is feminine; it is neuter (OK, maybe neuter doesn’t ooze sex, but it can dream, right?).

So, instead of the stylistically messy ‘He/She’ or the awkward ‘They’ to refer to humanity in general, you can say Yo.

As in:

  • Always comfort your child when yo cries. 
  • If a writer wants to avoid sexist writing, yo can.

And what’s the source of this politically correct reference to sex? A study gives the credit to teenagers in Baltimore. 

‘Yo’, as I know it, is American slang, a form of greeting among teenagers.  In fact, a quick survey of dictionaries (OED, Webster and Urban ) reveals the following meanings –

  • a contraction of ‘your’ characteristic of Black English: Here’s yo tea.
  • an exclamation/greeting akin to Hey, or even a response to a call:  Yo! wassup?/ Hey, you there? Yo!  

Although the word picked up currency during WW II when it was a common response at roll calls, it is actually older than that. It’s  a Middle English word, dating back to the 15th century! (‘Awesome’ I can almost hear the teenagers, who think they invented it, say.)

Now, am I going to start using a word in a particular way just because a bunch of teenagers in Baltimore do? Not bloody likely!

It’s not about teenagers; I think they’re a creative lot, always fashioning exciting new words. I’m just wondering whether they’re simply misusing/abusing the word. 

Call me rigid if you will, but a new word has a feel of authenticity to it that this one just doesn’t.  It rings hollow. A new word has to be spanking, squeaking new, not just a distortion of an existing one.

And to be sure there have been earlier attempts to forge gender-neutral pronouns:  ne, ip, thon, E, zie, and hiser. Failed words, all of them. There must be a reason methinks.

Could this be the reason – that as long as there is ‘male’ and there is ‘female’ there will be ‘he’ and ‘she’? That if we cannot think neutrally, our pronouns will not be neutral? 

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. Wittgenstein.  Yo said it.

Slightly off-topic: A friend wrote in to comment on the attempted anonymity of this blog.  (I declare I’m female but refuse to reveal anything else.) “Feminine mystique” he psychoanalyzes it away, leaving me gasping for breath and frothing at the mouth. So anonymity is gender-specific, too!

If  a man were to hide his identity, he probably has professional reasons for it. But if a woman does, then she’s being a coquette, huh? Why does an anonymous female always inspire sexist notions?

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How not to say what you want to

Why do we say “Excuse me” sometimes when we mean “Move” and/or “Listen up”? Two incidents in the last week prompted this question. 

1. A man stands between me and my favourite bookshelf in the library, absorbed in his finger-voyage up his nose.  “Excuse me,” I say (hoping I won’t have to touch any books that he  uh . . .  you know).  He turns around eagerly, “Yes? Tell me?” “Nothing,” I reply tartly. “You’re standing in my way.  Please move.”

“Why don’t you just say so?” he grumbles.

Excuse me? Didn’t I?

* * * *

2. A young woman is trying to silence a group of people.  “Excuse me,” she’s yelling again and again. I wince. Surely one doesn’t yell “Excuse me”!! Isn’t it a polite phrase, a request, an apology?   Shouldn’t she have been yelling “Be quiet ” or “Listen up”? 

Distraught,  I turn to the OED for solace. It lists the phrase “Excuse me” as “an apology for an impropriety in speech, a polite way of disputing a statement, a polite form in addressing a stranger, or in interrupting the speech of another.  It’s also used to excuse oneself, to ask permission or apologize before leaving a room.”

So when did the phrase come to mean “get out of my way”and “keep quiet”? Well, urban dictionary, that venerable source of current slang, does list these two meanings:

Given the undertones of politeness of “Excuse me”  it sure is ludicrous to see someone gritting their teeth and saying, with barely suppressed rage, “Excuse me?” when what they really want is to say “Get the hell out of my way!” or “Just shut up and listen will you?”

Euphemism. That’s probably what the phrase has now become.  And ‘euphemism’, as we all know, is a euphemism for lying.


This picture refuses to disappear from the mind:  Asma Jehangir breaking down while telling Barkha Dutt her most vivid memory of Bhutto. She recollects Bhutto saying, 8 years ago, that her children were too young for her to return to Pakistan.  A chilling reminder that Bhutto was not just a  ‘political figure assassinated’ (and therefore grist for the news channels) but a human being, a woman, a mother, whose loss is personal and emotionally traumatic for some. 

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