Words, Words, Words!

I love words. This may be because I love talking, discussing, debating, arguing, commiserating, really engaging with people through words. This makes it very important to pick the right word to convey specific meaning. But what is the perfect word? Is it a contemporary word? Is the word used in a vernacular setting or in an academic setting? Is its meaning slang or SAT level? My love of words made Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, by George Chauncey, especially fascinating to read. Chauncey gives particular attention to the words used to describe the gay world of New York City.

What becomes very apparent while reading Gay New York is that the way present day society thinks of gay culture before World War II inaccurate. Many think of the 1960s as the begging of a gay culture, when in actuality the pre-WWII gay world has been hidden. Because this world has been lost for sometime we have lost the definitions of the words commonly used by its inhabitants. Chauncey points out the difficulty of applying current definitions of words to the historic usage. He states that: “we need to use it more cautiously and precisely, and to pay attention to the very different terms people used to describe themselves and their social worlds.” [1] It is easy to forget that the meaning and usage of words change. Chauncey does an excellent job of showing the transition of words but also of showing the great number of words used to describe those who lived in and interacted with the gay world.

Chauncey outlines where and by whom specific words would be used. Words such as wolf, fairy, punk, gay, queer, nance, and trade were more commonly used by those who would consider themselves part of a gay culture. Words like invert, pervert, degenerate, and homosexual were used by regulatory bodies such as police, doctors, and private censorship organizations. [2] Looking at these words out of context it is easy to find a definition for how one would use them now, but what about how they were used within a different context? What did they mean?

Perhaps one of the easiest places to see the transformation of a word is to look more closely at the evolution of the word gay. Chauncey points out that in the 1600s gay was used to talk about immoral pleasure, by the 1800s it referred to prostitution when talking about women. [3] It also could be used when talking about something brightly colored or flashily dressed. This last definition of gay could then describe the “flamboyant costumes adopted by many fairies” who might dress as women, wear makeup, or affect effeminate behaviors. [4] By the 1930s gay was used to both describe the flamboyant and to refer to sexual relationships, this can be seen in Carey Grant’s fabulous film Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 film. Grant is asked why he is dressed in a woman’s dressing gown. In exasperation is explodes jumping into the air exclaiming “I just went gay all of the sudden!” [5] Chauncey uses this clip to illuminate the common usage and understanding of gay.

The way words change and are re-defined is fascinating and Chauncey does an excellent job of showing how these words evolved and what that evolution meant. Just because we use the same words as those did 100 years ago does not mean the usage of the words are identical.

[1] Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994). 6.
[2] Ibid. 14-15.
[3] Ibid. 17.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. 18.

17 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words!

  1. I love the quote in Bringing Up Baby that came after the “I just went gay all of a sudden” line: “I’m sitting in the middle of Forty-second Street waiting for a bus.” I haven’t seen this movie, but if I had, I never would have known what he was talking about until reading more about it in Gay New York (page 18). So interesting how powerful words can be.

    1. Its very interesting to watch older movies, especially those under the Motion Picture Production Code, because whenever they depicted gay and lesbian characters, they would play on stereotype, or use clever little phrases to give clues to the audience about the character’s sexual orientations.

      1. Great point, Jeanette. Those phrases you mention remind me of the way imagery from “The Wizard of Oz” was appropriated by the gay pride movement. Before this week, I had never made the connection between the iconic gay pride rainbow flag and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and–to touch on Caitlin’s point about the importance of words–coded language such as “A friend of Dorothy.”

  2. Given the history of the word gay as Chauncey describes, it is also interesting that it was a word that homosexual men chose to describe themselves. When you reflect on the fact that the word once referred to immoral behavior and prostitution, it’s hard to imagine that the term ultimately ended up becoming a politically correct way to describe the gay community.

    1. Great point Britney! Throughout the book I was continually surprised to see the terminology used to describe homosexual men. As Caitlin highlights “Words such as wolf, fairy, punk, gay, queer, nance, and trade were more commonly used by those who would consider themselves part of a gay culture.” Today I would find many of these woulds inappropriate to describe gay men but it is interesting to see the terminology chosen to describe one another.

    2. In the past, other groups have adopted the hateful words used to insult their organization in an effort to show that they were unashamed and even proud to be affiliated with the group. I think the term Christian was started as an insult. I thought Cowboy was another example, but when I looked it up just now it turns out that was a misconception.

  3. I wonder if there are still words for trade, wolf, punk, etc. It would seem that the heterosexual/homosexual binary blotted the entire concept from our vocabulary in just a few decades, which is amazing when you think about it. Maybe words are all we need to change these concepts again.

  4. You are right Caitlin, the meaning behind the words we use every day is fascinating. As I was reading Chauncey’s discussion of how the term “gay” was used it made me think of how words continue to evolve. I remember in high school and college, saying “that’s so gay” to describe a negative reaction to something surfaced. Definitely not okay. Words and expressions can be so loaded and the meaning is always changing. Reading this made me think what terms we will be using in the next 20 or 50 years.

    1. Great point, Emily. I’m curious to see how often words like “gay” and others which used to be in our vocabulary are still used in schools. Is it something we’ve grown out of and others are still using these words, or have we as a society recognized how offensive they are? I have a feeling that it is the former, but I’m curious nonetheless.

      1. A few months ago, I was assisting a teacher with a special program in the school. A disruption broke out between two girls, and one little girl called the other a lesbian. The teacher heard it and asked the little girl if she knew what the word meant, and the little girl answered no. The teacher then told her she shouldn’t be using a word that she didn’t understand its meaning. A number of times during my student teaching I heard students using homosexual terminology in a derogative way. I went blue in the face trying to help them understand that this was inappropriate and offensive. However, with some students, I don’t think there was expressed intent to be offensive or disparaging, but rather it was a term they have heard in society and in their community and didn’t really understand it (a case of ignorance). There were differently students using the phrase that did intend it be hurtful. It would be great if all of society understood how offensive these words, used in the wrong context, can be. Sadly, I think its something that people come to understand over time. But I think what’s really important is that people do come to understand the implications of the words they use.

      2. I also think it’s interesting that people see calling someone gay or a lesbian is seen as derogatory, like an accusation. Sure, a kid may not know exactly what the words mean that they are using but they understand them as an insult. It makes me think of the time I visited the Museum and Library of the Confederacy in Greenville, SC where I was told that Abraham Lincoln was gay. I just stared blankly at the docent because I knew he wanted me to think that marred Lincoln’s character. But you’re right Kahla, it isn’t seen as an “innocent” label of someone’s sexuality, it is sadly used an insult.

      3. Kahla- your comment reminded me that when I was in elementary school, someone in our class started using the word “virgin” as an insult and it spread throughout the school. I’m pretty sure most of the kids using it had no clue what the word meant, as it was used as an adjective. Anyway, it’s interesting to see how insults are formed, what words are chosen and what meanings lay underneath. I saw a list of offensive phrases people still use today: http://www.businessinsider.com/offensive-phrases-that-people-still-use-2013-11, some of which were very surprising to me.

        It’s amazing how pervasive this offensive language is in our everyday vocabulary. I think it’s extremely important to try to be aware of the potential connotations of what we say. As Caitlin pointed out, language is always evolving, and words gather more meanings as time goes on. Maybe the phrase “politically correct” creates a myth of right and wrong when it comes to language; maybe we should think more about the process of language, as I don’t think it’s really possible to totally arrive at 100% correct usage.

  5. That is very true Caitlin. Chauncey mentions that African Americans had different lingo in referring to gays and lesbians. One of the terms used to speak of black gay men within their community was ‘faggot,’ now today an abusive and derogatory term. It is interesting how words that were once positive and praising can over time become negative. I think that says a lot about our society.

    1. I wonder how “faggot” was appropriated by black gay men though. I always figured the word was (extremely) derogatory because a faggot is a piece of wood that gets thrown into a fire. Thus “faggot” would be a way to imply that a gay man would go to Hell because he’s gay. Now I wonder why the word was used in the first place. Was it once an insult, then a descriptor, then an insult again? Or was the word first associated with gay men in a way that had nothing to do with Hellfire at all? There are other old meanings to the word, from what I can see here: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faggot?s=t

  6. I think that most of these words have changed meaning because they have been misunderstood and appropriated by a group that was not using them originally. When our homosexual/heterosexual binary was introduced, the general public acquired a more negative view towards homosexuality (not to say that there was a positive understanding of gay people before), and the gay community’s terms were reinterpreted by people who did not know the subtleties of their definitions. As a result, words which used to be a usable and positive code within the gay community became negative synonyms for all members in the hands of nonmembers. We are starting to understand how negative these terms are now, but we still need time for them to leave the lexicon.

  7. I believe now there is a push in the LGBTQ community to simply use the term “queer” instead of gay, lesbian, transgender etc. This is another word that has been used in hate speech against LGBTQ people that some are trying to reclaim as a more inclusive way to refer to their community.

  8. I also thought the evolution of the word “gay” was very interesting. New words or ones that have fallen from our everyday vocabulary openly flag a new meaning is attached to them that we need to learn. Reading a text from the 1920s or 1930s, you may apply your own understanding of the word “gay” without realizing that there’s a difference. I was unaware of this shift and would have been guilty of that. I think it shows how powerful words can be. They reflect how we define and categorize things as a society. Other groups have similar issues. Amongst African Americans, the n-word is quite controversial. Some work towards eliminating it’s use while others want to claim the word as their own, shifting its meaning to relate to something positive.

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