Think B4 You Speak

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According to Tycho at Penny Arcade ("The True Face of Our Enemy", 8/17/2009)

The Think B4 You Speak campaign is basically incoherent, and operates from some deep misconceptions about how and why people communicate. These assertions have been collated and placed sequentially in today's comic offering

The strip in question:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

His conclusion:

No-one responds to this kind of diffuse scolding, least of all young men, least of all from strangers who present themselves as archwizards of prim speech and perfect morality. Bigots and stupid kids speak this way expressly to promulgate the root concepts or to provoke a reaction.  Telling them to "knock it off," as this campaign hilariously does, is like exposing your belly to these wolves.

Lexically speaking, the word Gay is a battleground of warring meanings, uses, and baggage. The fact that the slur has retained its power – for all parties involved – is evidence that the conflict is ongoing, and that its destiny is not yet established.  I have tremendous support for them in their aim: the wresting of language, which is identity, from the unworthy foe.  If you want to hunt this kind of game, you need bigger ordnance.

This is only partly true, it seems to me.

First, a lot of people do respond to such campaigns.  In some cases, they respond by complaining about "political correctness", or in other negative ways; but often, they actually try to modify their language, as complicated and confusing as that sometimes seems to be. It's true that the people who change their usage are generally not the people with genuinely offensive attitudes — but the campaign is specifically aimed at those who offend others without really wanting to do so, not at hard-core bigots.

And second, people's word choices are sometimes ignorant rather than thoughtless.  I was in my 20s before I learned that gyp (meaning "cheat") had anything to do with gypsies. It's not that I thought it didn't — I just had never given the question any thought at all, because it had never occurred to me to do so.  A friend of mine often used the expression "jew down" (as in "I jewed the dealer down to 5% over his cost"); when I pointed out to him that this reinforced anti-semitic stereotypes in an especially ironic way, since he as a WASP was a notoriously tenacious bargainer, he was taken aback, and claimed never to have realized that there was a connection between "jew down" and jews.  And I once met a college freshman who was convinced that gay as a term for sexual orientation was derived from a pre-existing word meaning "foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of", rather than from a pre-existing word meaning "brilliant, showy, merry, sportive".

It's true that campaigns of this kind are generally pretty ineffective. "Just say no" and "This is your brain on drugs" seem to have enriched the culture's stock of catch-phrases without having much impact on the popularity of sex and drugs.  But maybe political correctness is different.

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153 Comments »

  1. Mark F said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    I think they can be very effective at changing the language, but I'm not sure how much they do to change the underlying attitudes. I didn't read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time until maybe 5 years ago, and when I did it was a peculiar experience because the language seemed reasonably modern except when they talked about race. In those passages it seemed bizarre and stilted.

    You can tell that attitudes don't change as fast as language because of the phenomenon of linguistic churn, where the new, polite term will start to be used demeaningly and thus have to be replaced by a still newer term. Actually, what this really indicates is attidudinal shear — they're changing faster in some parts of society than others.

    [(myl) I guess that "attidudinal shear" is a typo, rather than a witty coinage. But that just shows that communicative intent and effect are not always in sync.]

  2. Audrey said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    To expand on your examples of word choices that are ignorant rather than thoughtless: I doubt that anyone 25 or younger really understands that "lame" can be considered offensive. While most people I've encountered aged 30+ understand that the word comes from "crippled or physically disabled, esp. in the foot or leg so as to limp or walk with difficulty," the only example of this meaning of the word regularly encountered by those of us 25 and under is in the phrase "lame duck (in politics)," and none of the people I've asked were aware that the word had anything to do with physical disability, even in this setting—they thought it meant something like "ineffectual." I think that in a few generations at most, the word "lame" will be completely separated from its original meaning in common usage.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Re "gay": I don't know the US situation, but worries about this could be getting obsolete anyway. A friend who works in education in the UK recently recalled a conversation with teenagers – see Kookaburras and other fossils – who find the meaning "gay"="homosexual"

    now very nearly a linguistic fossil, to be used only when talking to “teachers, and old people”. The second is the “real meaning, in real life, nowadays”: sad, embarrassing, pitiable, evoking derision.

  4. notrequired said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    I had an experience similar to that of the misinformed college freshman.

    Being Russian and having gone to an Estonian school, I often heard the word tibla being used disparagingly. I concluded then that the word must mean something like "foolish, stupid". What I didn't notice was that the children always used this word to mock me, and never any of the other classmates (I was the only Russian in the class). For years I kept using it as a synonym for "stupid", which often provoked laughter among my Estonian classmates – they knew from their parents what the word really meant. Only in my late teens did I make the shocking discovery that the word is, in fact, a derogatory term commonly referring to Russians or Russian speakers.

  5. Faldone said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    From among my top ten bumper stickers seen:

    HOMOPHOBIA
    IS SO GAY

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    If gay derives "from a pre-existing word meaning brilliant, showy, merry, sportive," it probably does so indirectly. Frank Harris, in his My Life and Loves (1922), used it as a sort of synonym for sexually active, and specifically to describe women who were open to having sex with him.

  7. kip said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Honestly, the first time I heard someone say that "gyp" was offensive to gypsies, my reaction was "isn't *gypsy* an offensive term?" I thought it was something like "witch," not an actual, real group of people. I'm still not sure what a gypsy is, and I've never encountered or heard of one in the US, but I guess there are some in Europe somewhere.

    Also, about "lame", there was a funny bit on Family Guy about this:

    Brian: Peter, your jokes are as lame as FDR's legs.

    (everyone looks at him in shock)

    Brian: What, too soon?

  8. John Cowan said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    Pseudo-eggcorns sometimes arise when people attempt to avoid what they learn (or assume) are slurs: in the case of jew down and jew's harp, they become chew down (which actually outnumbers its counterpart 3:2 on Google) and jaw harp respectively. Similarly, there are half a million ghits for the innovating spelling ghey, used for the slur.

  9. Andrew said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    Ray Girvan: What do young people say when they mean 'homosexual'? I'm presuming not 'homosexual'.

  10. Mark F said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    myl — Well, I don't know about witty, but I was trying for an evocative coinage anyway. What did you think I was trying to type?

  11. kip said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    Besides "lame", aren't there many words that once described physical or mental handicaps, that are now pejoratives? Dumb, idiot, imbecile, moron, and psychopath come to mind, there are probably many others.

    It seems the same thing could be happening with "retarded." The medical community has moved away from describing people as "retarded," while in pop culture it is becoming much more common to use it as a pejorative. Or maybe it has been this way for a while and recency illusion is going on here.

  12. Barrie England said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    'I was in my 20 before I learned that gyp (meaning "cheat") had anything to do with gypsies.'

    It’s by no means certain that it has. OED merely says of 'gyp' ‘perhaps short for "gypsy" or for "gippo" [a tunic or a varlet]'.

  13. Theodore said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I've seen the "Cheerleader" TB4YS poster (on Riverside plaza, Chicago's West loop) and had no idea what it was about— the explanatory fine print was far too fine and the back text was concealed— until I found my way to the TB4YS site through LL. I can't imagine the campaign to be very effective under those conditions.

    Regarding the "SAY WHAT?" sidebar on the TB4YS site, I can also say from my own teenage experience that pointing out to others what words "really mean" is not the way to point out what words really mean.

    There's so much Language log fodder here the mind boggles.

  14. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    Am I the only one who thinks that the home page of ThinkB4YouSpeak is sending a mixed message? They make a point that saying "That's so gay" could be insulting to others, but on the same page, in the SAY WHAT cloud, they say that gay actually means "happy," that fag means "to get tired from hard work," and that queer means "odd. unusual. different."

    Are they calling for people not to use the words? Or for people to start to use the words in this "old-fashioned" way? If gay "actually means" happy, what's wrong with saying "He's so gay"?

    And please, those are rhetorical questions. I'm not arguing that flippant use of these terms isn't oppressive and degrading; I'm just concerned about what I see as a mixed message.

  15. Tom said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    kip – I went to primary school with quite a few gypsies (eastern England, 1990s); it's not always considered the most politically correct term here but it does refer to several real groups of people including Romany and Irish Travellers who live semi-nomadically, often moving around the UK throughout the year to follow seasonal farmwork.

  16. kenny v said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    I used (and still use occasionally, though I try not to) the word gay to describe something negatively, in middle and high school. This campaign might actually help me out. I actually spelled it "ghey" (as did some of my friends) in my IMing period in high school, to differentiate it from the word that meant "homosexual."

    I think Mark is right about people responding to these sorts of things. Moreover, I think Tycho has misidentified the target audience. I think the ads are supposed to tell everyone else "hey, don't be like these obnoxious boys"–they're trying to keep the term from spreading more widely into other demographics whose usage of the word is low at present.

    I love when two of my daily blogs converge. I check Penny Arcade and comment about it to my wife, then come over to Language Log for a pleasant surprise of bonus discussion.

  17. Derider 5000 said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    "Besides "lame", aren't there many words that once described physical or mental handicaps, that are now pejoratives? Dumb, idiot, imbecile, moron, and [...] retarded."

    Indeed, I fail to see why "gay" gets to be singled out as the subject of a "proper usage" campaign when people apply terms referring to handicaps to things they don't like every day.

  18. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    As linguists, you have the burden and opportunity of pointing out that what a word once meant frequently has little relevance to what it currently means, as a rule. And we do a disservice to ourselves, our reader/listener, and the language if we must drag out the old meaning as a lens through which we examine the current word. (It matters not a whit that cute once meant bowlegged.) So what that we have gay apparel, gay blades, gay festivities, gay men and women (of whatever disposition), nosegays, and gay old times? Let all meanings stand side by side on their own merits, or fade away. Just defend innocent meanings from attempts at pejoration through guilt by association. And please intercede in drive-by shootings of words like niggardly.

    (I believe Gypsy was a racial slur originally, based on the belief that Gypsies came from Egypt. I find it ironic that the slur can now be slurred [gyp] since the target people adopted the original disparagement for their identity.)

  19. möngke said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    Here in Slovenia, we had a roughly similar ad campaign a while ago. It targeted prejudice against, incidentally, Roma/Gypsies, which is extraordinarily prevalent here. One example of this prejudice is threatening young children that they will be given to the Gypsies if they are naughty, implying that Gypsies like to steal children and use them as slaves. The ad poster featured a small child in scruffy clothes, unmistakably Roma in appearance, with the caption: "If you're naughty, we'll give you to the Slovenians." At the time, I thought it was extremely good, although the angry voices of many of my fellow countrymen would suggest that this opinion was not exactly shared by everyone.

    I was reminded of this ad when seeing the TB4YS posters, as they seem to imply that homosexuals are unduly stigmatized in that a word referring to them is used in a derogatory fashion, while nobody seems to say 'that's so cheerleader' or 'that's so gamer'.

    The fancy graphic with the 'true' word meanings, however, misses the point completely. You can't say that dyke 'really isn't' a derogatory term for 'lesbian', because it is. How a word should or shouldn't be used is another matter entirely… (That said, 'beard' and 'cougar' still puzzle me; AmE slang isn't exactly my strong point, to be honest.) If you're trying to reinforce that a word can be offensive, the least effective strategy is covering your ears feigning incomprehension, saying "that's not really an offensive word", when it fact it very much ease.

  20. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    @Derider

    At the TB4YS campaign, all manner of words referring to sexuality in general (eg, "dick" and "cherry" are being targeted, though the emphasis is on slurs referring to LGBTs.

    I think that's natural in such campaigns. The "Just Say No" campaign was targeted at drugs. Only a few people complained that fatty foods were being ignored, though certainly they are just as dangerous and likely even more so. Think how easily a "Just Be Nice" campaign would be reduced in the popular imagination to "Just Be Nice (to people like me)."

  21. Boris Blagojević said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    I agree that the cartoon misses the point. After all, the campaign can hardly do any harm, and there's no reason not to try it.

  22. Bloix said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    @Mark F – go back and read what you wrote, dude.

  23. Grep Agni said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Could someone fix the open tag?

  24. Mark P said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Homosexuals often use the term "gay" to describe themselves, and so it's not a term that has drifted away from that meaning. Also, I believe the word was not coincidentally picked up for pejorative use but rather specifically because it refers to homosexual people. It's almost pure bigotry.

    I think a campaign like this can help because it makes the offensiveness undeniable. Even if some call it political correctness, it makes it harder to use that term in polite society once the complaint has been aired publicly. In the southern US, where a generation or two ago the term "nigger" was used widely and publicly to refer to blacks, today, even if the sentiment has not entirely disappeared, the term is never used publicly by whites to refer to blacks. The stigmatization of that usage didn't solve all the problems, but it was progress.

  25. Andrej Bjelakovic said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    While it is true that the pejorative usage didn't arise accidentally, I think the current usage among the youth is usually devoid of any homophobic connotations. Much like 'bitch', which is nowadays often used without any misogynistic connotations, but as, to paraphrase Randall Munnroe, an exclamaton of triumphant superiority.

  26. Mark F said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Now I see it. I did reread it before reposting, and still didn't see the error until now. Heh.

  27. David said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    That print ad copy reads like hate speech against anyone and everyone.

    I don't know what constituency this campaign serves. The only person I ever knew who used these sorts of epithets habitually stopped when he came out of the closet.

  28. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    • My prescriptive side is almost as irked by “B4” than by gay-as-slur.

    • As somewhat of a gay activist, I say let them slur. The best defense against pejorative epithets isn’t prohibition, is reclaiming them — as we did, rather deliciously, with “queer” and arguably “homosexual” (which, I heard, once implied some kind of psychiatric disorder). For another example, Tycho is coming from the gaming community, where both homophobia and gay-as-slur are endemic (which, of course, is not a coincidence). But then we have wonderful little initiatives such as the Gay Gamer forums, which amount to saying “yes, we’re gay, so what?”. Come up with a new derision term, and we’ll proudly absorb it, too. The worst they’ll do is to stretch the LGBTQI acronym a little further.

  29. Chris said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    So if you're not supposed to call something gay, lame, or stupid, what *do* you call it to express disapproval? I suppose you could go retro and call it bogus, but that could get you sued in England…

    More seriously, the fact that terms of disapproval are polysemous with designations for disfavored groups is obviously not pure coincidence (and ditto the opposite phenomenon, "mighty white of you", "the Christian thing to do", "gentlemanly behavior", etc.), but bowdlerizing the dictionary, well, that's just crazy. (Oh, wait.) Where's the middle ground?

    [(myl) I haven't heard anyone suggest taking words out of the dictionary (well, except for Apple). The discussion has to do with which of the words and expressions in the dictionary people should choose to use, and when, and why. Would you really say, unironically, "that's mighty white of you?" ]

    Aside from pointing out that every language does this constantly, and identifying the etymology of specific accused words, what role do linguists have in this discussion?

    [(myl) Well, there's the question of exactly what "this" is, as well as the nature (and not just the existence) of recurrent patterns. And then there's a careful description of the current state and recent history of usage, in the cases under discussion. Aside from all that, nothing special...]

    P.S. I also think Tycho is right that the people most likely to use these terms are intentionally breaking social norms as a sport – sometimes a competitive sport – and this kind of consciousness raising is doomed to fail.

    [(myl) Your opinion is duly noted. But given that the point has already been made, and that you give no additional evidence, analysis, or anecdote, why should the rest of us care? This is a discussion, not an opinion poll.]

  30. Mark A. Mandel said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    One slantwise comment about word choices:

    //And second, people's word choices are sometimes ignorant rather than thoughtless. [...] A friend of mine often used the expression "jew down" (as in "I jewed the dealer down to 5% over his cost"); when I pointed out to him that this reinforced anti-semitic stereotypes in an especially ironic way, since he as a WASP was a notoriously tenacious bargainer, he was taken aback, and claimed never to have realized that there was a connection between "jew down" and jews. //

    Though it's clear in the paragraph as a whole that you're using your friend's use of "jew down" as one of several examples of "ignorant rather than thoughtless" word choices, the use of "claimed" can incorrectly imply that you doubted his sincerity.

    [(myl) Well, in fact, I didn't (and don't) know whether he was entirely sincere or not. When you live in a culture where idiomatic expressions like "jew down" are common, it's possible to use them without really intending or even thinking about the ethnic slur aspect, while still at some level being aware of the connection. So maybe the connection never occurred to him, but maybe he was taken aback because for him it was a just fixed expression, not an active metaphor.

    Either way, it's useful for people in that situation to get an occasional stroke of the clue stick.]

  31. bianca steele said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    I'm a little confused. Is the campaign targeted to cheerleaders and jocks and the less-attractive gamers who look up to them? Is it targeted to middle school teachers who regularly complain that their quieter male students and their less heavily made up female students don't meet the same high standards their sports- and clothes-obsessed classmates do? Is it supposed to illustrate that homosexuals can be jocks too?

    [(myl) That's a question for the people organizing the campaign. You can contact them here.]

  32. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    I think that a major point is being overlooked here. People who use expressions like "jew down" and "paddy wagon" unaware of their epithet-charged content have moved on from (or have never visited) the place where the social or ethnic slur existed. They are not actually perpetuating any stereotype or oppression. In fact, they are indifferent to the slur. This indifference may itself be offensive to the one who wishes to have been slurred, yet as they say, no offense intended (but that is a different sort of problem). Just as it is impossible for an atheist to blaspheme (what god?), so it is impossible for one unconscious of a hidden or coded meaning ascribed to a word by another to offend with it. The offense is in the beholder.

    [(myl) But it's an offense nonetheless. Even if you're right that it has no meaning for some speakers and writers, it certainly has an effect on their audiences. Why should children (for example) be made to listen to their ethnicity used as the prototype for greed or for drunken criminality?]

  33. Bloix said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    It appears that there are people on this thread (e.g., Mark P) who are unaware that gay=homosexual entered common usage in the 1970's. It was promoted by gay activists precisely because it had a positive connotation, in contrast to queer, which was the common slang term at the time (and which had none of the confrontational connotation that it has now- it was simply a crude insult), and to homosexual, which was a term for a psychological disorder leading to criminal behavior.

    Before the 1970's, outside the gay subculture itself "gay" meant happy, carefree, fun (as in the Flintstones theme song from 1960, "we'll have a gay old time"). Sometimes it had a hint of sexual freedom (the Gay Divorcee, the Gay '90's), but certainly nothing as taboo as homosexuality.

    After the 1970's, gay became the accepted positive, and then neutral, word for homosexual, and the historic meaning began to drift into obsolescence..

    I was first puzzled and then genuinely shocked when I first heard, from my children and their friends, the use of "gay" as a slur, as the word "queer" was used forty years ago..

  34. Brett said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    The problem I have with complaints and campaigns like this is that, ultimately, there must be a judgment call involved in these word choices, which the campaigners rarely seem interested in addressing or providing guidance for. The question is: How far removed does the current usage of a word have to be from its slur origins before it becomes acceptable?

    Is "hunk" permissible? It started out as a slur of Hungarians, but the only time I've ever seen that usage was in an episode of Quantum Leap (that is, as an intentionally dated usage). What about "Hungarian" itself? It too was a slur, equating the Magyar with Huns. But while you can call the people "Magyar," there is no other word for "Hungary" readily available. What about "gothic"?

  35. Mark P said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    Bloix, I'm aware of the intentional adoption of the use of "gay" by gays. I couldn't have told you when it started, but the 1970's sounds reasonable. I don't recall its use when I was in high school in the 60s.

    [Wrong by 50 years. The OED's first citation is from 1922:

    1922 G. STEIN Miss Furr & Miss Skeene in Geogr. & Plays 17 Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then... They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there..not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there. 1929 N. COWARD (We all wore) Green Carnation in B. Day N. Coward: Compl. Lyrics (1998) 114/3 Art is our inspiration, And as we are the reason for the ‘Nineties’ being gay, We all wear a green carnation.

    And it seems to have been in common use by the 1940s:

    1941 G. LEGMAN Lang. Homosexuality in G. W. Henry Sex Variants II. 1167 Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity..or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes. 1941 T. PAINTER Homosexual (typescript) in G. Chauncey Gay N.Y. (1994) 18 Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was ‘wise’ or even homosexual. One might ask: ‘Are there any gay spots in Boston?’ And by a slight accent put on the word ‘gay’ the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant. 1947 Vice Versa in J. Katz Gay/Lesbian Almanac (1983) 624 Homosexuality is becoming less and less a ‘taboo’ subject, and..I venture to predict that there will be a time in the future when gay folk will be accepted as part of regular society. 1948 K. WILLIAMS Diary 22 Aug. (1993) 32 Met a charming young RAF fellow there obviously gay who played Debussy's Bergamasque with more understanding than I've heard for many a day. 1948 G. VIDAL City & Pillar ix. 246 [In New York] the words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste. It was fashionable to say a person was ‘gay’.

    ]

  36. Stephen Jones said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    including Romany and Irish Travellers

    Surely it would only be used for Irish Travellers if people mistakenly thought they were Romany.

    Gypsy is a synonym for Romany referrring to people.

  37. Stephen Jones said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    I would never use the phrase 'jew down' or 'jew' somebody because they are clearly offensive.

    Yet I would happily say 'working like a nigger' and yet the PC crowd claim offense here where there is none.

    It seems certain words acquire totemic aspects.

  38. Nick Lamb said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    “But it's an offense nonetheless”

    As we've seen with niggardly, unless you're willing to be utterly subservient to the wishes of others you have no choice but to risk offending them. "Uppity blacks" were offensive, as were women who "Don't know their place". Or how about telling some kids in your science class that a rock they've been given to hold is over a million years old? Very offensive to their fundamentalist parents who feel that such statements of fact constitute an attack on their religious beliefs.

    Language Log's long enthusiasm for showing how group differences are statistical rather than categorical goes a lot further toward eliminating actual bigotry than stopping people from calling things lame, gay, retarded, etc.

    To more specifically address "paddy wagon" I must say that I'd assumed the police van is a paddy (ie Irish) wagon because the police were (in some places famously) often Irish, not the criminals being put into it. If I give a child the (accurate) impression that their ethnicity is strongly associated with law enforcement is that a bad thing? I've never looked at the etymology before but Wiktionary agrees with me on this. Mark, do you have a citation supporting your "drunken criminality" claim?

    [(myl) With respect to paddy wagon, Wikipedia says:

    There are at least three theories as how the phrase originated.

    * The most prevalent theory is based on the term "Paddy" (a common Irish shortening of Patrick), which was used (sometimes as derogatory slang) to refer to Irish people. Irishmen made up a large percentage of the officers of early police forces in many American cities. Thus, this theory suggests that the concentration of Irish in the police forces led to the term "paddywagon" being used to describe the vehicles driven by police.
    * An alternative theory is similarly based on the term "Paddy" but states that the term arose due to the number of immigrant Irish being arrested for having consumed too much alcohol and taken away in the vehicles.
    * The final theory holds that the name originates from the padding used on the inside of police horse-drawn carriages to prevent injury; this last is regarded by lexicographers as an example of folk etymology.

    A great number of Irish-Americans and persons of Irish descent consider this term to an offensive ethnic epithet.

    I have no idea which of these theories is true -- perhaps all and none of them are -- but I know that some people find the term offensive. ]

  39. MJ said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    @Stephen Jones

    Are you serious? Am I missing some reference to something somehow innocuous involving the phrase you'd happily say? Or would you really happily say it in the way it would be understood by most everyone?

    'Gay' is one thing, the N-word another. Many people use 'gay' who are not homophobic at all. This doesn't mean they should use it, but it at least ameliorates the sin. The N-word long ago became a way to openly declare one's racist attitudes (among non-rappers). And this is common knowledge in the Lewisian sense. So no use is ever forgivable, or so I'd think.

  40. Michael Straight said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    "Dude! You kissed a girl? That is so gay!"

  41. Liz said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

    Interesting and enlightening topic – but I think it is a lot more complicated than it seems. Offence is often more in the mind of the hearer than the speaker. I was under the impression that "gay" was the polite and politically correct replacement for "queer"; though I have become aware that queer is changing from a negative to a positive term. I had no idea that "gay" had changed its meaning yet again.

    As for gypsy (who are not unknown in England) when I was young, the word was descriptive, not meant to be a slur, though I now know that "Romany" is more PC. "Gyppo" was meant to be derogatory (Irish travellers were known as tinkers.) The concept of "gypsy" was as much romantic free spirit as outcast at one time, surely?

    As for words connected with disability, attempts at PC don't do a lot to change attitudes. I find "retarded" as a relatively mild insult less offensive than as a medical description. (Not much used in England). Learning disabilities is wide to the point of meaninglessness. It seems to me that denotation and connotation is more relevant than derivation. What is the point in considering the shifting meanings, from Middle English to the present, of "nice" and "silly"?

  42. Alan Gunn said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    If the fact that "some people find [a] term offensive" is a reason for not using it, we're in big trouble, as there are people who go out of their way to find offense in harmless phrases. I have been told more than once that it's offensive to say "rule of thumb" because it refers to an old English law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no larger in diameter than their thumbs. This story is nonsense; there was never such a law in England. The phrase derives from the fact that most people's thumbs measure close to an inch from knuckle to tip. Stories just as silly have been told about "picnic" and "handicap." And lots of people are offended by "niggardly," a word that it probably is best to avoid in speaking lest it be mistaken for something else but which ought to be OK in writing, at least if addressed at an educated audience.

    I cannot for the life of me understand what's wrong with "lame." Is it now the case that all words for physical handicaps are in poor taste? Can we no longer talk about people being "deaf" to something or other, or about deafening noises or blinding lights? Or "bald-faced lies"? (I'm somewhat deaf myself, and my hair is going, but being an insensitive clod I haven't been pulling my weight in objecting to "deaf" and "bald.") What are lame people if not lame?

    Another problem arises with words that may once have had about them a hint of an ethnic slur but which have surely lost that connotation by now. For instance, saying that someone has welshed on a bet may once have been a slight about the Welsh (no one knows for sure), but it's hard to believe that anybody not looking hard for reasons to complain hears it that way today, at least in the US. Has there ever been a history in this country of discrimination against the Welsh?

    There certainly are ethnic slurs that no decent person would utter. But trying to extend the prohibition to words that may or may not have originated because of ancient stereotypes about the Welsh or the Irish seems to me to risk subjecting the whole set of prohibitions to ridicule. We now have a holiday in March when almost everybody pretends to be Irish, and the Welsh seem to have dropped of the ethnic radar screen entirely. Don't these facts count for something?

    [(myl) All that's being advocated, at least by me, is informed choice. You should know how people are likely to react to your actions, and why. Then you can do what you want, which might be to go out of your way to give offense, or to go out of your way to avoid giving offense, or to judge in a particular case that no one you care about has a right to take offense, or whatever. And similarly for the likelihood that others will admire your actions. ]

  43. Ellen said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    Seems to me there's an issue of keeping in mind your audience here. Like, don't use the word "niggardly" (one example brought up) if a sizable portion of your audience won't know the word or will misunderstand it.

    @ Alan Gunn: The issue isn't using the word lame for a physical disability. The issue is taking a word for a physical disability as using it as a general disparaging term, such as "this song is lame".

  44. Ellen said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    P.S. Regarding niggardly being okay in writing for an "educated audience" I have a college degree (I think that qualifies me as educated), and I'm only familiar with the word from discussions such as this one and don't know what it means, except something negative. Even if the readers won't mistakenly think it's related to "nigger", that doesn't mean it's okay to use.

  45. linguist.in.hiding said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    I had something more to say but what is the point. Liz said it clearly:

    > Offence is often more in the mind of the hearer than the speaker.

    I just want to point one thing out.

    Brett:

    > Is "hunk" permissible? It started out as a slur of Hungarians, but the only time I've ever seen that usage was in an episode of Quantum Leap (that is, as an intentionally dated usage).

    I really suspect this explanation, especially since

    > What about "Hungarian" itself? It too was a slur, equating the Magyar with Huns.

    No it was not, at least generally (were there really that many Hungarians ever in the USA?). The Germans really were called "Huns". The etymology BTW is that one of the Hungarian "tribes" was Turkish. They got the name from them. The name for "Hungary" is "Ungarn" in German, "V'engr'iya" in Russian and so forth. No /h/ there. In fact, the name of the "tribe" was "on ogur" 'ten arrows'.

    But as a little consolidation for you, a true story. The professor, who is Hungarian, of my erstwhile department was once in Austria. The local acquaintance of his told him that the church in this town was destroyed by Huns. The professor who knew the real history said:

    "I am so sorry but it was us, the Hungarians, who did it."

    > But while you can call the people "Magyar," there is no other word for "Hungary" readily available.

    What about "Pannonia"?

  46. Alan Gunn said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    "The issue isn't using the word lame for a physical disability. The issue is taking a word for a physical disability as using it as a general disparaging term, such as "this song is lame"."

    Sure. What I don't understand is why that should be an issue. I do understand why disparaging something by calling it "gay" would cause offense, as it implies that being gay is undesirable. But being lame, or deaf, or maybe even bald really is undesirable, isn't it? So we're just talking about analogies.

  47. Mark F. said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

    I'm getting the (possibly erroneous) sense that a lot of people think "that's so gay" only arose in the past 10 years or so. I remember a college friend of mine in 1984 or '85 being mortified after catching herself saying that expression within earshot of somebody who was gay.

    [(myl) The OED's earliest citation for this sense is from 1978:

    1978 G. KIMBERLY Skateboard 41 ‘It looks terrific on you.’ ‘It looks gay.’ 1987 Creem Close-up Presents No. 1. 6 Your so-stupid-they're-funny captions are gay. Get into some [real] humor.

    ]

  48. Chris Brew said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

    There's giving offense, and there's taking offense. When I am speaking as a representative of a U.S. university, I know that the audience who might hold me to account includes several subgroups who might be offended by things that I might very well say in another context. Norms just do differ (sorry, Norm!). It's not about the prohibition of this or that word, it's about knowing the situation and understanding what's acceptable in the situation. And, if you decide to avoid "niggardly", you
    can get a lot of joy by dubbing the perp a "mingy parsimonious penny pinching skinflint". That's quite offensive enough: it's supposed to offend.

  49. JB said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

    Ellen,

    "Niggardly" means "stingy." It is a good literary word, like "prodigal." It has nothing to do with "nigger."

  50. Bobbie said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

    The former chairman of a local group objected to the annual event being called a " Picnic" because (he insisted) that word referred to white people attending lynchings in the American South. So he changed the name of the event to the "Outing" — which several gay members had to explain to him was offensive/ humorous to **them! So then it was known as the "Annual Event" — a totally boring title. Now it is being called the "Hoorah!" So far there are no objections to that one!

  51. Ellen said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    JB: You don't have to tell me what I indicated I know. Reread the last sentence of my post, thanks.

    Also, I do know how to use a dictionary. Doesn't change the point that you shouldn't write using words that your readers have to look up in a dictionary because they are so rare.

  52. u. saldin said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

    ^ I would hope that an educated audience would not be averse to learning new words.

  53. Timothy Martin said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:43 am

    The way I see it, the conclusions made by the people behind the Think B4 You Speak campaign are, in a word, overreaching.

    Instead of saying "this word might insult people, so no one should use it that way ever," why not say, "this is what this word means to some people, so be careful when you use it"?

    A number of people in this thread, along with the guys at Penny Arcade, seem to be under the impression that using "gay" to describe "something one does not like" is a bad thing. What is the logic behind this, exactly? Surely no one can doubt that a single word can have multiple meanings – that fact is the reason we're having this debate at all. So is the logic then that Meaning A of a word would be insulting if applied to people described by Meaning B, ergo we must never use Meaning A? The problem with this is that if you apply it strictly, there's no end to the number of word meanings we would have to delete from our lexicon. The "new" meanings of Stupid, Gay, Lame, Dumb, Spaz, Geek, etc. would all have to go. And as a number of people in this thread have mentioned, there are words on this list (or its extended version) that I think we can all agree shouldn't go.

    Or perhaps the logic is that people will be insulted by the "I don't like this" meaning of "gay," but not, say, by the "I don't like this" meaning of "stupid." Therefore, we should abandon the former, and not the latter. This seems more reasonable to me, but surely we must take into account how many people we're likely to insult with our words. If a word that is completely innocuous to me tends to cause umbrage every time I use it (perhaps because I've moved to a new part of the globe where the word has a different pattern of usage), then I certainly agree that changing my usage of the word is a good idea. But what if the number of people who take issue with a certain word is so small that I've not once experienced a negative reaction myself (as is my experience with the word "spaz")? Again, perhaps we can agree – it is okay to use the word "spaz" as Tiger Woods did in the link above (if you're an American, anyway).

    And what about a word like "gay" that falls in the middle – it insults some people but not others? As a Young Person in America these days, I personally use the new meaning of "gay" on a regular basis, as do a number of my peers, and generally no one has a problem with it. I don't object to it myself, because in my mind the "homosexual" and "I don't like this" meanings of the word are completely separate. Just like when I call something "stupid," I'm not insulting stupid people, and when I call someone a "motherfucker," I'm not insulting the fathers of the world. Those other meanings exist, but are not relevant when I'm not invoking them.

    Despite my position, however, I'm completely sensitive to the fact that for some people, the two meanings of "gay" are not so separate, and thus my words might cause unintentional harm. But as several people here have pointed out, words can always cause unintentional harm, even if one is careful. So where does one draw the line? In my opinion, if my linguistic community has very clearly defined, via usage, two separate meanings of one word (as is the case with "gay"), then it is not a problem if I do the same. I can understand if someone disagrees regarding where their personal line should be drawn, but these arguments saying that we should all draw our line in a certain place don't seem to hold water.

  54. Max Holder said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:31 am

    A lot of people here are comparing using "gay" negatively to "dumb," "lame," and etc. I don't think this comparison is really valid because those words no longer hold their original meanings. "Gay" is currently used for both "homosexual" and "stupid," while "dumb" or "lame" are very rarely used to mean mute or disabled.

    I think a better comparison would be in the use of "retarded" to similarly mean "stupid." It's unlikely that anyone using this word in that sense has anything against the mentally retarded, just as many who use "gay" are not homophobic. However, it is important to realize what impact your word choice can have and what image of yourself you are projecting.

    Also, "niggardly" is a perfectly good word, agreed. However, I think it is very difficult for anyone to use it without it drawing attention. So why not avoid any potential offense by just using a different word? There are many words that mean stingy that don't have any such confusion, just like there are for "stupid."

  55. Evan said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 4:21 am

    MWDEU says "we have no evidence that gyp is ever used in an ethnically derogatory way."

    This was discussed when it came time to name GYP and the general consensus was that it was in no way offensive (although there were dissenters). Never having met a Gypsy, I haven't had a chance to hear their take on it.

  56. Graham said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 4:35 am

    'Disabled' still in common use for a person with a physical or mental deficit.
    Still commonly used for anything no longer functioning.
    Does anyone know which usage came first; or did they appear in parallel from the same literal construction?

  57. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 6:19 am

    Am I missing some reference to something somehow innocuous involving the phrase you'd happily say?

    I would have said working very hard is perfectly innocuous. The Spanish equivalent is 'trabajar cómo un negro', and I've never heard of anybody taking it as offensive.

    It's a set phrase that has been in the language for a long time.

    What you are forgetting is that 'nigger' has never been a common term of racial abuse in British English. The abusive terms used towards black immigrants were 'coon' or 'spade'. I would certainly not use the phrase 'work like a coon' because the word 'coon' to me is offensive, as is the word 'yid' or 'gypo' or 'dago' or 'ayrab' or 'chink'.

    When dictionaries claim that nigger is 'probably the most offensive word in the English language' they are merely attempting to universalize provincial American usage. I would say that of these four terms used to denigrate blacks, 'nigger', 'coon', 'spade', 'wog', in British English 'nigger' is the least offensive.

    The Oxford English dictionary has five examples of the phrase, and only one of them even mentions the fact that nigger equals black person. I challenge you to find what is offensive in these three other examples.
    Charles.. will.. work like a nigger at his music.
    He [ a bird ] laid into his work like a nigger.
    If this was the way to get to Caxley High School with its untold joys.. why,then, she'd work like a nigger and get there!

    [(myl) It's true that this phrase has been in the language for a long time, and that means that some people can use it thoughtlessly, but it certainly doesn't make it innocuous.

    A search in LION for "work|working|works|worked like a" turns up (in British sources) the alternative comparisons slave, gang of slaves, galley slave, navvy, mule, horse, dray-horse, dog, donkey, ox, dull ox, ant, beast, heathen, lunatic, madman, demon, along with the racial variants "haythen naygur", "common negro", "neger boy". I think it's clear that this is not, historically, an innocently positive commentary on the work ethic of people of African origin; and it's not likely to be taken that way now.

    As for the equivalents in Spanish and other languages, they seem equally likely to be perceived as racist, and for the same reasons.]

  58. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    while "dumb" or "lame" are very rarely used to mean mute or disabled.

    On what do you base this statement. A quick look at the first entries in the BNC suggest it is used in the sense of speechless nearly 50% of the time.

  59. Graeme said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    "I would have said working very hard is perfectly innocuous. The Spanish equivalent is 'trabajar cómo un negro', and I've never heard of anybody taking it as offensive"

    It seems these usages you cite arise from languages that prospered through economies that prospered through slave culture. (Aboriginal Australians are never invoked as metaphors for a a totalising work ethic – they were never formally enslaved. On the contrary, racists still invoke them as a metaphor for indolence or inattentiveness, as in the phrase 'gone walkabout').

    Attributing a work ethic to being owned and controlled is, in any event, hardly a testament. Presumably the OED usages you cite have a 'polite' implication that Charles/the bird/the Caxley High aspirant were 'slaves' to their work: although, even then, the connotation of obsessiveness is a double-edged compliment.

  60. Ellen said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    Timothy Martin:

    A number of people in this thread, along with the guys at Penny Arcade, seem to be under the impression that using "gay" to describe "something one does not like" is a bad thing. What is the logic behind this, exactly?

    The logic is that the use of the word "gay" for something one dislikes derives from the use of the word for homosexuals, and is therefore insulting to homosexuals. The logic rests on seeing the two meanings as connected. Knowing that someone uses gay (or "ghey") of something disliked while somehow not seeing a connection with the homosexual use does not take away my awareness that that's where the term comes from. (An assumption about word origin, I admit. But it seems more likely than that usage derriving from the happy meaning.)

  61. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Mr. Martin, thank you for your well-reasoned statement. A clarification: if you believe that m…..f….. is an affront to fathers, you may misunderstand the origin and proper use of the insult.

  62. Timothy Martin said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Ellen: It seems you're presenting a case for where you draw your personal line on the matter, in which case I completely see where you're coming from. If the etymology of the "I don't like this" meaning of "gay" bothers you to the extent that you couldn't in good conscience use it, then that's fair enough. All I ask is that such people also understand where persons like myself are coming from – acquiring our word meanings from current usage, with less regard for how those meanings came to be.

    Mr Fnortner: I'm glad to participate in the discussion. :) As for what you said about m…..f….., that's entirely possible! ::sheepish look:: …Although it would make for an excellent example of how native speakers can be entirely unaware of what a word used to mean!

  63. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Re Stephen Jones bringing up the expression "work like a nigger" — I must admit that my immediate gut reaction was similar to MJ's. I'm North American (Canadian, born 1974) and generally, I tend to think of the N word as one of the worst racial insults that are out there.

    However, Stephen's followup post, where he listed three or four derogatory words for people of African descent and noted "nigger" is the mildest of the bunch in his speech community, gave me food for thought.

    I'm from southwestern British Columbia, which has a significant Chinese-Canadian population and a significant Indo-Canadian population. Growing up, I thought of "chink" and "paki" as pretty bad racial insults, rivaling a word like "nigger".

    However, when I was well into adulthood, I met somebody from New Zealand, and it somehow came up that in that country, the term "paki" is a much milder, almost cutesy word. You could use it, for example, at a cricket match and not be considered one of the vulgar racist members of the crowd. I got the impression that the word "paki" in NZ is more like "limey" or "newfie" or "aussie".

  64. Ken Brown said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Liz said: "As for gypsy (who are not unknown in England) when I was young, the word was descriptive, not meant to be a slur, though I now know that "Romany" is more PC. "Gyppo" was meant to be derogatory (Irish travellers were known as tinkers.)"

    Anecdotal, but I once asked a (settled, monolingual English-speaking) Romany I know what she would like to be called, and she said "Gypsy". For her "Romany" was an alien word that she would never use. She didn't really mind "gyppo". On the other hand "If anyone calls me a pikey they'll get my glass in their face". (If I remember correctly – we were in a pub at the time and someone had used that word which is what led to the conversation)

    "Tinker" is I think mostly Scottish or Northern Irish and is derogatory. The Irish Travellers call themselves "Travellers", and not "tinkers" or "gypsies" (though Gypsies/Romanies can also be called "travellers")

    The two together are just about the last ethnic groups that respectable British people can get awau with being racist about in public. The Trravellers get the worst of it. About ten years ago, Jakc Straw, then Home Secretary made an arse of himself going on about "criminals masquerading as gypsies" – and he didn't even seem to realise that he'd insulted both groups. I have seen "No Travellers" signs on pubs in South-East London this century.

  65. bianca steele said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Timothy Martin proposes a new and intriguing linguistic theory. We ought, he thinks, to eliminate the emotive connotations from an utterance, and notice only the objective meaning. Thus, when Stan on South Park says, "Dude, that's so gay!" he is attributing a neutral (even positive!) association with a known group. Under his theory, what's offensive is not the use of a word, objectively just a sequence of letters or phonemes, but a false attribution of emotional value to an utterance of language. Q.E.D.

    "Who were the ad wizards who came up with that one?"

  66. Ellen K. said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    @ Timothy Martin: No, I wasn't presenting a case for where I draw my line. I was answering your question about the logic of it. Nothing more.

  67. Bloix said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    myl- as I said, before the 1970's, "gay" was used solely in the homosexual subculture. Your quotations from Gertrude Stein, Noel Coward, etc clearly show that the word was argot, a way to communicate that would not be understood by outsiders. Then, In the 1970's, when gay people began to demand recognition and equal rights, activists made strenous efforts to introduce the term to the general public and to encourage its adoption in the mainstream press.

    Timothy Martin – "Just like when I call something "stupid," I'm not insulting stupid people."

    How many self-identified stupid people do you know?

    The problem here is not the word. Gay was introduced because it didn't have any negative connotations. The fact that it has become an insult indicates that people really do have contempt for gay people. It means that for some people, there is no possible word for gay that is not insulting – just as there is no such word for stupid.

  68. Timothy Martin said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    Bianca: I'm not sure what you're trying to say about my argument. I didn't say anything about eliminating emotive connotations from an utterance. Indeed, since calling something "gay" is an expression of disapproval, it would be unusual for some negative emotion not to be involved. If you would, please explain what you mean in a little more detail.

  69. v said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    The situation with Gypsies i Europe and Blak people in the US is analogous. There are almost no black people in Eastern Europe and almost no Gypsies in the US. People learn about how persecuted the groups they don't have at their locale from the Internet and don't take it that seriously. That doesn't make it much different.

  70. Timothy Martin said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Bloix: "How many self-identified stupid people do you know?"
    So are you saying that because people identify as "gay," that the word cannot also have a meaning with a negative connotation (or, more precisely, to use the word as having such a meaning would be demeaning to gay people)? Do you have an argument to support that?

    While I must admit to not knowing any people who seriously call themselves stupid, I do know people who call themselves "blind" or "deaf" (see Alan Gunn's examples above). I also know people who identify as left-handed, even though a left-handed compliment is a bad thing. I also know a lot of people who call themselves Boy Scouts, even though the term can be used disparagingly to describe a goody two-shoes. I'm sure I could come up with more if given the time.

    Now if you're like me and don't see these examples as insulting to blind people or lefties, then perhaps the reason is because 1) sightedness and handedness aren't salient issues in our culture on the level that sexual orientation is, and 2) words like "left-handed compliment" aren't thrown around as often as "gay" is, and thus there's less opportunity to become sensitive to them. Again, it seems to me that the crux of the issue is that the new meaning of "gay" still has that raw feeling of pejoration to it in some people's minds. The more innocuous examples that people have provided in this discussion are logically similar to "gay," but historically and culturally different, and therefore they affect our consciences differently. The problem isn't that "gay" has multiple meanings, but that using the new meaning evokes for some people the association with the old – and that, of course, is a problem.

    But I can say from experience that there are plenty of people (and maybe they are primarily young people) who don't have the two meanings of "gay" grouped together so tightly in their minds, given the history of how they were raised on the word. Simply put, our linguistic intuitions differ. And isn't that a common theme here at Language Log? One thing that the bloggers here are always teaching me is that clashes between intuitions are always occurring, and it's often hard to say that one side or the other is objectively right. I think I've made a decent case that my intuitions on this matter aren't completely off the wall. In any case, I intend to continue following them, and revising them based on input from the linguistic community around me.

  71. Mark F said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    I think I understand Timothy Martin's point. For most people over 40, I think the usage is still very much a live metaphor. But if you were born in the 80's, you likely learned the insult before you learned the neutral meaning of the term. A lot of people use it without thinking metaphorically at all.

    The thing is, if you know that a particular meaning of a word arose less than 40 years ago based on negative stereotypes of an often-despised minority that is still discriminated against, wouldn't you think it's best just to drop it? Especially if that word is the same word people use to refer to the group in question?

    Also, I don't buy the "be careful when you use it" argument. The problem with saying "He'll try to Jew you down" is not that it hurts Jews' feelings, it's that it encourages people to think negatively of Jews. Despite the fact that "ghey" and "gay" are now, you may feel, two totally separate words, people you talk to might imagine that their similar sound suggests that they are somehow related, and graft the negative connotations from one to the other.

    Finally, I don't buy any of the slippery slope arguments on this either. "Lame", "retarded", "gyp", whatever — they're all separate decisions.

  72. Kenny V said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    I've really learned a lot reading these comments about how derogatory terms can have completely different levels of offense depending on where you are. I'm really astounded at some of the things people have said are/aren't offensive where they live/grew up (of course I believe them, it's just really surprising!).

    Where I live (austin, texas), "nigger" is by far the word with the worst connotation. Unless you are black or VERY comfortable with black people, if you use it around a black person, you are more likely than not to be assaulted. And I don't say that to imply that black people are more likely to assault you, it's just that there's no equivalent term, not by a long shot, for any other race. I've never even heard of those other terms Stephen Jones said were more offensive than "nigger" in Britain.

    Second would have to be motherfucker, which is EXTREMELY offensive to a certain class of people, a subset of adults. But among younger people (like me, 21), overuse (brought in from rap) has so greatly diminished its impact that it's now used very casually.

  73. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    This might no longer be the case, but one of my local TV stations would not censor the word "fucker" when showing late-night movies, but would censor "motherfucker".

  74. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Sorry Mark, but it is not in the least surprising that beasts of burden spring to mind when there is a simile for working very hard. To suggest that the phrase is therefore 'racist' is a jump too far.

    The reason the word phrase 'work like a nigger' is considered offensive is because it has been decided the word 'nigger' is offensive.

    Now normally the perceived offensiveness of a word is the result of the hearer's experience of the use of that word. So if a speaker has heard the word used as a term of abuse he is understandably going to bridle. The problem comes when the term is not perceived as a term of abuse by the person who is using it. I have heard 'coon', 'spade', 'wog', 'yid' and 'dago' all used as terms of abuse and thus will sub-consciously avoid using them, but 'work like a nigger' does not trigger this subconscious aversion because my experience of the word 'nigger' started with reading Mark Twain.

    We can hardly purge our language of derogatory racial terms; we're not going to stop using the term 'philistine' however many Palestinians start complaining about it, and of course the mutual insults of 'French letters' and 'capotes anglaises', 'take French leave' and 'filer a l'anglaise', and many more are in the language and staying.

    The point is that there are words which are experienced as insults because they have been used as insults against the person who experienced them, or have never been heard in another context. But other people might never have experienced the words in this context, and thus are puzzled when they are accused of being gratuitously insulting. When there was a discussion here and on the Guardian about the word 'golliwog' some people insisted it had been used as a playground insult against them. But to my generation of only a few years before golliwogs are associated with the badges you got with Robinson's marmalade, and a soft fluffy toy akin to a teddy bear. And of course we had a positive emotion towards them. If you'd have told us we were supporting symbols of the oppression of black people we'd have thought you were stark raving mad.

    The case you give of 'jew down' is this generational difference in reverse. My generation would have been quite used to the phrase being used disparagingly, (the fact I was brought up in an area with a 30% Jewish population probably makes me particularly sensitive to anti-semitic insults) but those under the age of thirty, unless they frequent the company of certain rednecks, are unlikely to come across disparaging uses of the word Jew.

    I also think that there seems to be a blind spot amongst linguists when dealing with taboo words. When they are describing some Amazonian tribe that changes the vocabulary used to describe the possessions of a member of the tribe who has died, it is recorded as an interesting objective fact and there is no discussion of whether it would be ethically correct or not to continue using the taboo words, yet when it comes to English we have endless discussions on the logic behind making words taboo.

  75. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    A famous example of where there are different levels of offensiveness in the same phrase is 'son of a bitch', 'hijo de puta' amongst Galicians and Valencians. In Galicia it is the worst insult you can give somebody, but in Valencia it is almost a friendly greeting.

    The same happens with 'bugger' in Northern and Southern England. In the North it is often used as a friendly term, 'you bugger', but in the South of England it is a serious insult. When there was still theatre censorship in the UK prior to 1967, the Lord Chamberlain covered himself with ridicule by insisting that a playwright (Arnold Wesker I believe) change the word 'bugger' to 'bleeder', which would have completely altered the meaning as 'bleeder' is derogatory everywhere in the UK.

  76. John Cowan said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    In Dorothy L. Sayers's 1927 mystery novel Unnatural Death, one of the characters (as reported by a second character) refers to a third character, who is from the West Indies, as a "nasty, DIRTY NIGGER [...] dressed up as a CLERGYMAN [which, in fact, he is]." If that doesn't count as a term of racial abuse, what does?

  77. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    With regard to 'gay', as far as the UK goes, I think the only solution is for the gay community to find another word. It was chosen for its positive connotations and now has negative connotations, so ditch it.

    And of course Wordsworth's Daffodils now becomes an explanation of how poets really get fucked up and depressed when they walk around the countryside with nothing but flowers and cows for company.

    A poet could not be but gay,
    In such a jocund company!

    If the poem is read too often 'jocund' will also no doubt undergo linguistic shift.

  78. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    I'm not saying Cowan, that you won't find numerous examples of 'nigger' being used for racial abuse. What I am saying is that it is not the default insult for black people in the UK, and many of us weren't brought up on it being deliberatively derogatory. I have heard plenty of people insulting blacks in the UK but 'nigger' is rarely used. That is not to say it was or is common; but the word will only be considered insulting by a person if he has perceived it as insulting when he acquired it.

    And of course you will get people using any demographic descriptor with an insult. Change 'nigger' to 'polack' or 'Jew' or 'taffy' and the Sayers quote would remain insulting.

    Finally there is the fact that set phrases are stored whole in memory. The phrase 'work like a nigger' is stored as one constituent lexical item; thus it is not analyzed into its constituent parts before being produced.

  79. Michael Straight said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Unlike "dumb" or "lame," I would never use the word "retard" as a generic insult, because for me it seems much more closely tied to the use of "retarded" as a world to describe people with mental handicaps.

    I think the Penny Arcade strip illustrates that "gay" is still even more closely tied to the meaning "homosexual," because part of the supposedly innocent use of "gay" in adolescent banter is this stuff Gabe says in the third panel where he makes jokes about Tycho being "up against a man." Adolescents who talk that way aren't usually making a serious claim about someone's sexual orientation. It's just supposed to be funny to make jokes accusing someone of being a homosexual.

    See also lots and lots of rap music where graphic descriptions of an opponent's alleged homosexual desires and behavior are used as part of "playing the dozens" (something like "your mama" jokes). Again, the supposed wit here is not that "gay" has a separate meaning of "lame," nor that the opponent is genuinely a homosexual, but something in between in which homosexuality is understood to be bad in a supposedly funny way, like having a sexually promiscuous mother, or a small penis, or foul body odor, or unstylish clothing.

  80. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    The other point about a 'racial insult' is that the group affected by the epithet must feel vulnerable. Nobody from Holland is bothered by the phrase Dutch courage because the Dutch don't feel themselves under attack as a racial group. The Welsh, who were the recipients of violent racial insults right until the end of the 19th century are no longer feel threatened which is why to 'welch/welsh' on somebody does not carry the same emotional load as to 'jew' somebody or to 'gyp' somebody, which are no more insulting objectively speaking.

  81. Bloix said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    "I think the only solution is for the gay community to find another word. It was chosen for its positive connotations and now has negative connotations, so ditch it."

    No. There's no way to mollify the haters. People who hate gay people will seize on any word and turn it into a slur. "Gay" is not inherently a slur, and if you use it as one, that's because you hate gay people, not because there's anything obnoxious about the word. Everyone who uses it as a slur is saying that effeminate men are beneath contempt. This is about coercion and ridicule in order to enforce social norms about masculinity, and don't belittle my intelligence by pretending you don't understand. There's one response to people who use gay as a slur: Fuck you. End of discussion.

  82. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    I, too, dislike the use of "gay" to mean "silly" or "uncool" or "mockworthy" or "I disapprove of that". And although there may exist young people who don't associate those meanings with the "homosexual" meaning, I think it's fairly clear that the historical reasons for gay-as-slur have much to do with viewing gay people as inherently mockable.

    However — and I realize I may be digressing too much here — I think it's hyperbole to say if you use "gay" as a slur, it's "because you hate gay people". Even if we ignore younger speakers with less life experience who might have honestly never connected the expression "that's so gay" with being homosexual, I think the word "hate" tends to be thrown around too freely in these situations.

    I dislike hearing casual homophobia or casual racism in the schoolyard, and I dislike it even more when it comes from adults who should know better, but I don't think the word "hate" does the greatest job of pinpointing where it comes from. I think it often comes from callousness, indifference, and insensitivity — maybe even contempt. Now that I'm typing this, I realize the word "contempt" is kind of close to "hate", so maybe I'm losing my point a little bit, but in general, I do think the word "hate" gets overused when discussing these topics.

  83. Gwen said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    But being lame, or deaf, or maybe even bald really is undesirable, isn't it? So we're just talking about analogies.

    First of all, whether it's undesirable to be any of those things is a matter of opinion; there are a lot of Deaf people, for instance, who would just as soon not be "cured", thank you very much. Something of a side issue, but important to keep in mind.

    Second, there are a lot of human conditions which are undesirable, which are nonetheless not used to mean, variously, "ineffectual", "morally wrong", "invalid", "pitiable", "obtuse", "deliberately ignorant", &c. (Can you see why it might be upsetting and possibly harmful for "deaf" to be equated with "pretending not to hear and deliberately ignoring", in phrases like "he was deaf to their pleas"? Would it help to know that the phenomenon of "you're not REALLY deaf/hard-of-hearing, you're just pretending not to hear me so you can ignore what I'm saying" is not as rare as it should be?)

    Some examples of conditions which are undesirable: being widowed, having cancer, being dead, being tortured (you do hear "your arguments are tortured", but the analogy there is fairly clear and, AFAIK, not hurtful), and having bad fashion sense. When was the last time you heard "Sarah Palin is so grieving-widow-y" or "wow, that rule is totally cancerous"? Do either of those make any less sense than "Sarah Palin is so lame" (so being unable to walk for whatever reason is… morally bad, somehow?) or "that rule is totally lame"?

    It doesn't even have to be about being offensive (i.e., hurting people, marginalizing groups of people, and reinforcing dangerous associations in the minds of the people you interact with). You can decide to avoid a word for imprecision. For instance, when you say someone is "blind to" something, what you're saying is either that they are deliberately ignoring things and this is morally bad (which… has nothing to do with actual blindness, does it), or that they are simply unable to perceive things. (Are blind people really completely unable to perceive things?) In the first case, you're risking letting the person off the hook, if people read it as the second case. (Well, if he's blind to the privilege he's swimming in, you can't really blame him, can you? Well, yes, I'm saying he shouldn't be and that he's being obtuse, having had every opportunity to learn.) And of course in the second case people may assume you mean the first case and correct you. And then there's also the hurting-people-you're-talking-to issue. So I'm, at least, replacing the two metaphors with self-blindfolded (or having one's eyes closed) and in the dark, or obtuse/willfully ignorant and ignorant/unobservant/unaware/unperceptive.

    Here's another example that illustrates it better: crazy. (Link goes to a spillover post I just made on my journal, realizing that my deer was getting a bit teal.)

  84. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    A few years ago I was standing in a very long lift line with a woman (I'm afraid to use that appellation now) I was skiing with, and there were about forty or fifty other people bunched up en masse in an interminable wait. My gaze fell upon a jacket that I became envious of. The wearer was the only black man in this sea of white people, and I said to my companion, "See that black man over there…?" Before I had a chance to finish, she spat back, "I can't believe you said that!" "Said what?" I responded. "That black man," she whispered." "Why?" "That's so insulting," she hissed between clenched teeth. "You're full of shit," I replied, whereupon the relationship went downhill (sorry) from there.

    I maintained then, and maintain now, that you cannot insult someone by naming them as they are. (Never mind that I did not direct my remarks to the individual so named.) How can it be degrading to be known as one's self?

  85. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    There's one response to people who use gay as a slur: Fuck you. End of discussion.

    Considering that its mostly used by elementary school children as a playground insult your reaction seems somewhat excessive.

    It's not a question of mollifying the haters; it's deciding whether the gay community wishes to continue to identify itself with a word that is commonly used as a synonym of 'lame'.

    The point is that changing the label for something more positive, which is the essence of PC, fails for the very reason you have stated. 'Special Needs' is now one of the most common playground insults.

  86. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    You could use it, for example, at a cricket match

    Not if it was India or Bangladesh playing.

  87. Alan Gunn said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    Gwen said:

    Can you see why it might be upsetting and possibly harmful for "deaf" to be equated with "pretending not to hear and deliberately ignoring", in phrases like "he was deaf to their pleas"?

    Nope. Seems lame to me. We start with saying you shouldn't call things "gay" because that suggests that you think it's bad for people to be gay. I have no problem with that, just as I have no problem with the principle that people shouldn't make derogatory remarks about blacks, Jews, and Indians (Irish or Welsh, not so clear to me, but there are bound to be borderline cases). But then, to say that calling things "lame" and the like causes the same sort of offense doesn't follow because except for a handful of my fellow deaf people who want to preserve their "culture," most people do think it's undesirable to have difficulty seeing, hearing, etc. (It's even more undesirable to be dead; should we not call proposed legislation that won't be enacted "dead"?) So now your argument seems to be that no word that refers to any "human condition" ought to be used to refer to anything else. I don't see why, and I don't see any reasons offered in your comment. Is it that using these words will remind those poor blind, deaf, crippled, stupid, crazy, or whatever people of their unfortunate condition, which they otherwise might have forgotten about? Or is it just that these conditions are too unpleasant to think about?

    It hasn't come up yet in this thread, but there's a lot of bullying going on in this area. Some people seem to like to demonstrate their superior virtue by telling others not to use ordinary expressions, sometimes even making up stories to justify their accusations ("rule of thumb," "picnic," "handicapped"). And the "correct" names for people who have been discriminated against seem to change regularly (Negro to Black to African-American, for instance), apparently so that those who are late in catching on to the new usages can be denounced as bigots. Well, bigotry is a bad thing. Bullying, ignorance, and stupidity are, too.

  88. Stephen Jones said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    (Irish or Welsh, not so clear to me, but there are bound to be borderline cases)

    Yea, I mean we have done so much to deserve being lambasted :)

  89. Gatwood said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    >> And the "correct" names for people who have been discriminated against seem to change regularly (Negro to Black to African-American, for instance), apparently so that those who are late in catching on to the new usages can be denounced as bigots.

    Not quite. The names keep changing because they keep acquiring unwanted connotations. They acquire unwanted connotations because of persistently bad social and cultural conditions. If social conditions for black Americans (or the term of your choice) are someday seen as equitable, and stereotypes about them become harmless or obsolete, then the label will presumably stop changing.

  90. Jair said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    I haven't read most of the comments above. I just wanted to applaud Mark F's "attitudinal shear" – given the mathematical definition of "shear"it's appropriate in context and I doubt it is a typo.

  91. Gwen said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    Nope. Seems lame to me.

    Really? It can't walk?

    Well, maybe if you've never encountered, or known anyone who's encountered, the "you're not deaf, you're just pretending not to hear me so you can deliberately ignore me" thing in your life, it's a bit harder to understand?

    But then, to say that calling things "lame" and the like causes the same sort of offense doesn't follow because except for a handful of my fellow deaf people who want to preserve their "culture," most people do think it's undesirable to have difficulty seeing, hearing, etc.

    Well, most people in my country either currently believe, or have believed in the past, that it's undesirable to be nonwhite or a woman. Certainly being feminine is considered undesirable. Do you use the n-word and words like "twat", "cunt", "pussy", and "bitch" too? (Surprise me; please say no. Lie if you must.)

    So now your argument seems to be that no word that refers to any "human condition" ought to be used to refer to anything else. I don't see why, and I don't see any reasons offered in your comment.

    Well, do you think it would be appropriate to go around using "grieving widow", "orphaned", "leukemia-ridden", "celibate", and "obliviously privileged straight, white, TAB, middle-class, and male" to mean (all at once) bad, ineffectual, morally wrong, badly-made, pitiable, pathetic, and upsetting?

    Is it that using these words will remind those poor blind, deaf, crippled, stupid, crazy, or whatever people of their unfortunate condition, which they otherwise might have forgotten about?

    No. The problem is it reminds them that everyone else devalues them specifically for their disability or mental illness (or whatever), and reminds everyone else that it's O.K. to go on devaluing them.

    "Wow, I'm glad other people see it, too! I was afraid I might be crazy!" says "wow, I'm glad I'm not like you!" "That argument is soo lame" says "that argument is so unlikeable, because it's like you." Just as "that movie was so gay" says "that movie was so bad and stupid, because it's like you."

    If you really still don't get it, I can demonstrate for you? I'll gladly use "Alan Gunn" as an all-purpose insult and synonym for "bad, stupid, annoying, or something I just don't like", and we can see if it'll spread to where you are. (Unlikely, since it can't piggyback on years and years of society-wide institutionalized prejudice, hate crimes, and torture, but who knows? I'll explain that I'm doing it to help someone get a clue about this kind of thing, and we can all agree it's undesirable to be you [particularly since, once this takes off, it will be undesirable to be you, much as much of the reason it's undesirable to be unable to see, hear, and walk is because our society makes it so].) Once everyone around you is using you as an insult, we can see if you get it yet.

    Because using part of someone's identity as an insult is sooooo Alan Gunn.

  92. Max Holder said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    The problem is it reminds them that everyone else devalues them specifically for their disability or mental illness (or whatever), and reminds everyone else that it's O.K. to go on devaluing them.

    I think Gwen sums up the argument against using similar terms very well here.

    However, I don't think "lame" or "dumb" should be considered very offensive. The reason being that these words are rarely used to refer to any disability anymore, at least from my observation in the Southern US. I can't imagine ever using "lame" or "dumb" to refer to anyone's disability. To me it just sounds archaic. If these words were still used to refer to those groups, then I would definitely agree that they should not be used negatively.

    Stephen Jones questioned this assertion above by citing the BNC which he says shows over 50% of the usages referring to the disabled. I don't think this entirely disproves my claim though because I was only speaking to American English usage. A cursory look at the COCA seemed to show less usage to refer to the disabled and more to refer to their negative counterparts, especially in the case of "dumb." If this difference is true, then perhaps "dumb" and "lame" are more offensive in British English than American English. :P

  93. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 4:45 am

    Not quite. The names keep changing because they keep acquiring unwanted connotations. They acquire unwanted connotations because of persistently bad social and cultural conditions. If social conditions for black Americans (or the term of your choice) are someday seen as equitable, and stereotypes about them become harmless or obsolete, then the label will presumably stop changing.

    In his book on Labour politics in the 1980s Mark Steel referred to the reasons behind the spate of 'political correctness' that overtook Labour councils such as Lambeth. His argument was that it stemmed from powerlessness. The Labour councillors could do very little to ameliorate the lot of racial minorites, or oppressed women, or homosexuals, or the mentally handicapped, but they could give themselves the illusion of power by controlling the labels.

    This is what appears to be happening with the black, colored, Negro, afro-American, labels. Black community leaders can't stop the massive discrepancies in incarceration, health, employment, salary, housing etc, but they can ensure that it is possible to attack whites for not keeping up with changes in fashion in nomenclature.

    The results on occasion are of course, comic. A visitor to the US who was married to a Fijian lost his wife in a shopping mall. He approached the security guard to ask him if he had seen her. 'What does she look like?" asked the guard. Knowing that the guard would have no idea where Fiji was he said 'Well she's five foot two and black." There was a stunned silence. "We don't say 'black' here, we say afro-American," was the reply.

    People seem to have forgotten Juliet's famous line "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Changing labels every time the label gains derogatory overtones fits in with the definition of insanity: continuing to do something that has been proved time and time again not to work.

  94. Liz said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    Well I am white Anglo Saxon, and heterosexual, so I have no experience of being put down by some of these words, but I do remember getting very irate while watching a popular and oft shown comedy sketch that used the word "spastic" as a very amusing insult (gales of laughter from the audience) At the time, my beautiful, happy daughter with cerebral palsy was two. I even wrote a letter of complaint, and was pleased that the word was changed for another derogatory term. In the years since, I have grown more used to the frequency of that kind of thing. Understanding perfectly well that changing the language has very little effect on negative attitudes, I am a lot less sensitive. Can't imagine being bothered by "lame", because, again, its use is more descriptive and doesn't have the strong (and ugly) connotations of some other words. As a teacher, I have sometimes had to tiptoe around the correct usage of some other words, rather bewildered as to what is currently offensive. Deafness is a particular minefield, But I agree with the posters who are aware, as I am, that it is not the careless use of words, but the attitudes behind the words that matter. As a woman, I dislike the very numerous derogatory words, but as the balance has shifted there, the words are not so much a problem as when they were widely accepted as descriptive.

  95. bianca steele said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    Stephen Jones: Labour politics in the 1980s

    Interesting. I graduated from a rather leftish East Coast college in 1987 and I do not recall hearing the term "political correctness" until after I had left. I observed the phenomenon many times–I never heard anyone call it "politically correct." All the etymologies I've read give a purely American derivation for the late 20th-c usage, and I had no idea it was current in the UK as well, with an identical significance.

    Within a few years, "political correctness" had no meaning at all. It meant anything from what you lot would call "nanny statism" to health food.

  96. Achim said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    Well, reading (most of) the comments and looking at the ad campaign again leaves me to ask whtat the campaign really is about.

    I think the argument runs as follows:
    - Teenagers who are unsure about their sexual orientiation tend to think anyway that leaning toward the same sex is bad (statistically, there are exceptions).
    - This fear might be reinforced by prevalent use of terms describing same-sex attitudes / behaviours to express negative attitudes.
    - So please give these youngsters a break by not using "gay" (e.g.) in a negative sense, thus giving them some air to find out who they are.

    I am not so sure that the campaign will help. It reminds me of motorway billboards advocating careful driving which the reckless drivers cannot read anyway as they drive by much too fast. The underlying problem is homophobia which (verso of the same medal) is a way of sexual self-assertion for (especially male) youngsters, in a line with derogation of women / girls, immigrants, boys who are bad in athletics, etc. As we all are by now aware of, PC will not influence prejudices, it only speeds up the cycle for adaption and abolition of new words for the same phenomenon.

    And one more remark on using derogatory terms "without meaning" them: My grandmother, like many other Germans, regularly talked about "Polish management" (polnische Wirtschaft, not intended as a compliment), if needs be within earshot of her Polish nurse / housekeeper. Yes, she meant it. She simply did not understand what was bad about calling a spade a spade.

  97. Alan Gunn said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    Gwen, again:

    "No. The problem is it reminds them that everyone else devalues them specifically for their disability or mental illness (or whatever), and reminds everyone else that it's O.K. to go on devaluing them."

    Can you explain how mentioning deafness or some other handicap shows that the person doing the mentioning "devalues" those being mentioned? Your position, if I understand it, is indeed that words describing people should never be used to say negative things about anything because if the word doesn't refer to something bad ("gay"), the speaker is implying that that quality is bad, while if the word does refer to something bad ("deaf"), the speaker is devaluing people with that handicap and reminding others that it's OK to do that too. This argument, if accepted, would require drastic changes in ordinary English speech; I suppose we could no longer say someone's effort "fell short," for instance, or talk about "tall tales" or "trimming the fat" from a budget. More basically, though, there seems to me to be a huge hole in the logic, here. Saying that something is offensive is not the same thing as showing why it's offensive.

    Those of your examples which do involve words not suited for use in polite company are words that one shouldn't use for people, as well as for non-human bad things (e.g. your list of various unpleasant words for women). Does saying, sensibly enough, that one shouldn't use those words support an argument against using words like "deaf" or "lame," which are not offensive when applied to people? If so, please explain the connection.

  98. Mark P said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    Sometimes people can be incredibly obtuse. The original word in question here is "gay." In the US, and in Britain if I'm not mistaken, gay people have been the object of contempt, abuse, discrimination, prosecution and even violence. The word "gay" has been adopted to mean something bad precisely because it refers to gay people. How can it possibly be acceptable in polite society to use the word in that way?

  99. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    My grandmother, like many other Germans, regularly talked about "Polish management" (polnische Wirtschaft, not intended as a compliment), if needs be within earshot of her Polish nurse / housekeeper.

    The reason is partly the way we store lexical items. We don't store 'polish management' or 'work like a nigger' in the same place as 'polish' or 'nigger' but as entirely separate lexical items, linked to others of the same meaning. So 'Polish Management' or 'Spanish work practices' or not necessarily linked to 'polish' or 'spanish'. I say, not necessarily of course, because it is possible that the person involved does consider the spanish to be feckless and the poles to be incapable of management.

  100. Achim said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    @ Gwen:

    Can you see why it might be upsetting and possibly harmful for "deaf" to be equated with "pretending not to hear and deliberately ignoring", in phrases like "he was deaf to their pleas"?

    No, frankly, I can't. At least in German, the metaphorical use of words for perceptive disabilites such as "deaf to their pleas" is common. If a newspaper writes that some police department charged with politically motivated crimes "is blind on the right eye" (i.e. they do not really care about far-right militants molesting immigrants or ravaging Jewish cemeteries), police authorities will contest the content of that story, but the visually impaired will not complain about the language.

    If for example someone boards a subway train and bumps into another person, s/he might ask (angrily) whether the other person was blind. If the answer is "yes", the bumped-into person would just say "oh sorry", and that's it.

    For instance, when you say someone is "blind to" something, what you're saying is either that they are deliberately ignoring things and this is morally bad [...], or that they are simply unable to perceive things. (Are blind people really completely unable to perceive things?)

    Saying someone is blind to something means the lack of perception is selective. At least for me such usage makes it clear (especially with abstract entities like privileges) that "seeing" something can only be meant metaphorically.

    I think to no longer use metaphors is highly undesirable.

  101. Timothy Martin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Responding to Mark F:

    The thing is, if you know that a particular meaning of a word arose less than 40 years ago based on negative stereotypes of an often-despised minority that is still discriminated against, wouldn't you think it's best just to drop it? Especially if that word is the same word people use to refer to the group in question?

    In a word, no. That history simply isn't salient for me. When I first found out that the only way to charge my new iPod (without spending money on extra peripherals) was to plug it into a computer that itself was also plugged into the wall, I called that "gay" – and in that moment I was not thinking about homosexuals any more than I think about cutting something when someone says "cut it out," or any more than I think about straightening things when I say "let me get this straight," or any more than I think about sex when I say "fuck you." It's simply not relevant.

    The next response to this, I assume, is "what about people for whom it is relevant." Well, if I have reason to believe that the way I want to say something will cause undue offense to someone, then I will probably say it a different way. If using "gay" the way I do caused offense to a lot of people, then I would probably stop using it all together. But it doesn't. Perhaps it's because I'm 24 and my peers feel the same way about the word that I do. I certainly don't use "gay" very often around older people, for the same reason I don't curse around them or say things like "hey dude." We talk differently around different people. So that may be why I don't encounter a lot of resistance to the word – I'm not using it around the people who would most object to it.

    The problem with saying "He'll try to Jew you down" is not that it hurts Jews' feelings, it's that it encourages people to think negatively of Jews. Despite the fact that "ghey" and "gay" are now, you may feel, two totally separate words, people you talk to might imagine that their similar sound suggests that they are somehow related, and graft the negative connotations from one to the other.

    But people don't generally analyze their language at that level. Most people are unaware of how much metaphor is in the words that they use, and even when you point it out to them, at first glance they are like "What? I don't see it." (And of course they're oblivious to the fact that they just equated "understanding" with "seeing.") The fact that people can be oblivious in this manner shows that they aren't usually aware of other meanings that the same sequence of phonemes can have. Again, no one feels it is a slight against sex to use the word "fuck" in so many insulting ways.

    Responding to Mark P:

    The word "gay" has been adopted to mean something bad precisely because it refers to gay people. How can it possibly be acceptable in polite society to use the word in that way?

    First of all, if you're making that argument, it's up to you to connect those dots – not me. But I'll answer the question anyway – this is the etymological fallacy we're dealing with here. The history of the word doesn't matter; current usage does. There is one sense in which the history of a word does matter (and I've been saying this all along), and that is if you personally feel the history, such that using "gay" to mean "I don't like this" can't but seem like a slight against homosexuals to you. Now, it is obvious that some people feel that way, and some don't. I'll say it again, our linguistic intuitions differ. Our experiences with the language throughout our lives have brought us to different places. I say, if I can continue following my intuition about the word "gay" while at the same time being careful in those specific instances where I am likely to insult someone that I don't want to, then that works out just fine.

    And no one reading this does any different. We all have words that we use that some people happen to not like (my mom always hated it when I said "that sucks" growing up), and we all come from different parts of the world where words have different connotations that can get us in trouble. Does that mean we write-over our intuitions and eliminate every phrase from our speech that someone somewhere has a problem with? No. We do what our linguistic gut tells us. And maybe in the future I will experience enough antipathy towards the way I use "gay" such that my linguistic gut will tell me "stop using that." And then I will. But until then, I'm just doing what everyone else here does and trusting my feelings. The difference is that I'm not forcing those feelings on anyone else.

  102. Gwen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    Saying that something is offensive is not the same thing as showing why it's offensive.

    Isn't it enough that it hurts people? It hurts me to hear "gay" used as a synonym for anything bad or unlikeable. It hurts a lot of people, for very personal reasons, to hear "lame" used the same way (people who have trouble walking are so lame). (And, by extension, it hurts me, to hear the people around me devalue other amazing people I know so casually.) If it hurts, it's hurtful. I'm not going to sit here and explain why you should avoid hurting people, or "prove" somehow that it hurts and that I'm not lying. I don't have to prove that the neurological result of you stepping on my foot is pain, similar to the pain you feel sometimes, to ask you to get off my foot (and, yes, to judge you badly if you refuse). And, ultimately, it's your decision whether or not you want to adjust your speech so that you don't hurt people. I'm not going to make you care if you hurt people; I'm just going to point out when you do, and let you weigh the consequences yourself, just as I do when my grandparents say racist things.

    Those of your examples which do involve words not suited for use in polite company are words that one shouldn't use for people, as well as for non-human bad things (e.g. your list of various unpleasant words for women).

    I'm perfectly fine with talking about my cunt. (A lot of people think "vagina" refers to the vulva as a whole, and sometimes I want to be more precise.) And bitch is no more offensive than stud when talking about actual animals, in my opinion. For that matter, it's totally fine to say I'm white, although "that's awfully white of you" meant non-ironically would not be approved of. That's not (always) the problem. The problem is it's hurtful and inaccurate, in a way which reinforces societal prejudice, to apply those terms to women (i.e., you're so inferior, you're nothing but a hole to fuck. Are any of those words offensive on their own?), just as it's hurtful and inaccurate, in ways which reinforce societal prejudice, to use "gay" and "lame" and, yes, "deaf" and "blind" when what you mean is "something I don't like" and "obtuse" (are deaf and blind people willfully avoiding seeing and hearing? Really?). People don't say something is "gay" and mean "awesome like Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres".

    They don't use "lame" to mean "athletic, smart, and compassionate, like [someone I was in a club with once]". They don't use "deaf" and "blind" and "mute" to mean "pretty perceptive and articulate about prejudice, like Helen Keller". Hell, they don't even mean "gay" like "someone I dislike due to his obliviousness to his male privilege, white privilege, and heteronormativity, like Russell T. Davies" or "lame" like "an argument I disagree with, like the one I had with [the person I was in a club with]". The association would make no sense; it's nonsensical to use "sane" to mean "unreasonably angry" or "straight" to mean "inferior" or "able-bodied" to mean "ineffectual", because sane, straight, and able-bodied are unmarked states, they're normal (right? Unlike, like, being part of the majority gender, or losing able-bodied status as you age or are injured), they're made of individuals with individual characteristics utterly unconnected to those labels. But obviously being lame is inferior and ineffectual at doing things without help from the TAB people around them; clearly all people with mental illnesses are unreasonably angry all the time; obviously being gay is weird and dislikeable. (Just like people with wombs are more likely to be hysterical where men are passionate. Right?)

    If you disagree with these associations–just as you (presumably) disagree with female genitalia being associated with inhumanity (cunt), disagreeableness (twat), and cowardliness and lack of strength (pussy), and Black people being associated with inferiority, laziness, &c. (do I even have to say it?), and thus avoid using those words–then stop reinforcing them. If you continue to do so, people around you will assume that either you do believe in those associations, that you don't care enough to change the words you use to avoid reinforcing them, or that (most charitable assumption here–and the one people who call you out on language use are making, incidentally, so please don't assume I'm writing you off as a homophobe if I call you out on using "gay" as a slur. I'm not; I'm assuming, to the contrary, that you can be reached, that you do care and are merely ignorant of the effect your words have) you simply haven't interrogated your language use. If I say something, it's because I think you'll care if you're informed. If I don't? It's because I think you don't. Can you assume that everyone who hasn't said anything to you is a-O.K. with the use of "lame" as an insult? Or have there been people who just didn't speak up?

    Something else to keep in mind. Maybe you're not a bigot (this is a general you, not an accusation). And that's wonderful! But if I see you at a party, at work, or in class, I have no way of knowing if you are or aren't; I can't see into your soul. And frankly, there are a fuckload of bigots out there, who aren't as wonderful and anti-bigotry and progressive and whatever else you pride yourself on, as you are. So when you say something that is bigoted, I can't possibly know you're saying it to be ironic, or to be poetic by "using metaphors" that don't actually make sense with reality but whatever, or to connect with the people around you so you can educate them in Anti-Bigotry 101 later, or whatever. To me it's going to sound like yet another douchebag saying bigoted things because his right to certain words trumps everyone else's right to not be hurt. To me, it's going to be one more person making my environment just that more dangerous and toxic for me and people like me and people I like who are unlike me but are also victims of bigotry. It's going to be one more flashback, one more moment of impotent rage, one more blood pressure spike, one more reinforced prejudice for some of the people around you (who might be employers, judges, social workers, doctors–people who have the very real ability to unconsciously enact their prejudices on others in ways which have very real consequences), one more reinforced "you don't matter. I wish you didn't exist." to some of the other people around you. And by that point, unless I do think there's some benefit to speaking out, I won't give a shit if in your secret heart of hearts you're a really nice person who thinks bigotry of any kind is bad, because I can't so easily divorce what you do where I can see you from what you are where I can see you.

    Can you understand why making rape jokes is a bad idea? If so, can you apply that to why it's a bad idea to use "rape" as a synonym for "dominate [in a positive manner for me, but negative for the object of my domination]" (e.g., "I raped that test!", "I raped him in that round!")? Can you see any ways in which those reasons can be analogized to the misuse of the words "gay" and "lame"? (E.g., you may have someone among your listeners who identifies with the word you're using [and may be triggered or feel belittled and marginalized and possibly put in danger by your use of it]; you may have someone among your listeners who knows people who identify with the word you're using; you may be reinforcing prejudice among those of your listeners; you may be encouraging bigoted beliefs and behaviors among people who already have an inclination to them; you may be discouraging people from sharing their experiences with you or speaking up about them in that environment.)

  103. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    @Timothy Martin

    Just because someone doesn't speak up doesn't mean they don't find it offensive. You know (now anyway) that some people find it offensive. Can you really be so certain that non of the people use use it with are amoung those who find it offensive or distasteful? Not unless you can read minds.

    And do you really believe that no one who uses the word that way associates it with homosexuality? I for one, don't. I don't think the connection between the two meanings is a thing of the past.

  104. Gwen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    In a word, no. That history simply isn't salient for me. … I called that "gay" – and in that moment I was not thinking about homosexuals… It's simply not relevant.

    Lucky you. (Do you feel the same way about those blatantly racist slurs that make even obliviously-privileged white people [who are not Rush Limbaugh.] gasp, blush, or titter behind their hands to hear? [Look, it's not much, but it's progress.])

    If using "gay" the way I do caused offense to a lot of people, then I would probably stop using it all together. But it doesn't.

    You're absolutely positive that you never use it around people who identify as gay (unless they're O.K. with it)? You're absolutely positive that the places you use "gay" as a slur in still feel safe enough for gay people and allies despite the use of "gay" as a slur that they would all feel comfortable speaking out? (I mean, it's not like anyone ever gets beat up or murdered or raped for being gay or anything. Oh wait.) It can be really easy to feel positive that no one around you objects if you have enough power (even just the social power of having like-minded people around you) that no one would. Gods know I've had to bite my tongue enough times, and I'm pretty firmly in the "if you feel safe enough to do it, do it" camp. Every time I do say something, and someone comes up to me to say "I'm so glad you said something; I was afraid to" I wonder how many other times I don't notice something needs said and no one says what's on their minds? Heck, even when society's with you it can be hard to speak against a crowd (even a crowd of one person!), as was demonstrated during my "OMG all religion sucks!" phase. (Funny thing–random people I talk to seem way more likely to be religious, and Christian in particular, once I got past that phase.)

    Again, no one feels it is a slight against sex to use the word "fuck" in so many insulting ways.

    I do! It makes my sex-positive heart sad inside. Fucking can be good! When it's not a term of anger, violence, and ritualized demeaning, done against someone's consent, as in "Fuck you." I still use it, because there's only so many words I can work on excising from my vocabulary at a time, but still. (Right now I'm working to get rid of "suck", because, again, I'm in favor of sucking! And licking, and biting! Plus it's kind of icky the way it's like "oh, you must be inferior, because the only people who suck [penises--cunnilingus is not really part of the linguistic landscape, it seems] are women and gay men (who are basically like women anyways! Right, patriarchy?!), and I don't have to explain why that's bad", you know? I mean, "fucker" is at least more of a misandrist insult.)

    Now, it is obvious that some people feel that way, and some don't.

    That's awfully white of you to acknowledge! :D ? :D ?

    The difference is that I'm not forcing those feelings on anyone else.

    The difference from what? OH NOES, are we under attack by rogue Betazoids?! Damn projective empaths, always forcing their feelings on other people!

    Oh wait, did you mean "people who are forcing their feelings of hurt and marginalization on me by (*gasp*!) telling me about them"? Because I have to say, I don't really see much of a difference between me saying "gee, Timothy, I really wish you wouldn't use 'gay' as a slur" (or even saying "OMG all people use gay as a slur are horrible horrible people! Who are homophobic!" or "STFU, bigot") and you saying "gee, Gwen, you posting at length on this topic all the time is really gay" (not that you have. It's hypothetical.); I mean, I'm saying something, based on my linguistic intuition, without necessarily much regard as to whether it's going to hurt your feelings, and you're saying something, based on your linguistic intuition, without much regard as to whether what you're saying is going to hurt mine. No feeling-forcing (or thought-policing, or censorship, or whatever term is currently in vogue for "you keep saying that. It hurts me when you do. Please stop.") going on here.

  105. Felix Grant said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    Andrew – at Ray Girvan's request, I've added some comment to "Kookaburras and other fossils" on this … short answer is, "they don't".

    In general,going back to the original post … suppressing prejudicial words will never work while the prejudice itself continues. New terms will replace them. Only when the prejudice passes into history will the words pass with it.

  106. Aviatrix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    'Disabled' still in common use for a person with a physical or mental deficit. Still commonly used for anything no longer functioning.

    I know of a radio station where the traffic reporters aren't allowed to call vehicles disabled because someone in management has a disabled child and found it offensive.

    Once upon a time being physically lame was stigmatised to an extent I can't imagine. When I was injured and couldn't walk, I rented a wheelchair to get around. An older relative, born in the early 1930s, was horrified to see me going out to dinner, strolling in the park, all the things normal people do. I was supposed to cower in my home unless I was hale, apparently. If that was the attitude, I can see that perhaps having a limp was pretty bad, too.

    I learned to call things "gay" as a child, before I even knew what sexual orientation was. It was specific, not a general pejorative. Thinking of contexts, it might have even meant "I reject that for no specific reason, it just doesn't seem right to me." And I wrote that before I realized that it means that today to a lot of people!

    Someday when no one gives a damn who marries whom maybe I can use it again.

  107. Timothy Martin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    In response to the argument that…

    Using "ghey" (and I'm going to change my spelling now to make this easier) hurts people:
    First, I would like to point out that this is the argument the anti-ghey people should have been making all along. It doesn't matter what a word's history is if it doesn't hurt people today, and if a word does hurt people today, it doesn't matter how people felt about it in the past.

    Now, I can't help but think our argument is about how many people "ghey" hurts, as opposed to the fact that it hurts anyone at all. Do you really want to make a case that because a word hurts anyone at all, people should stop using it? Because that seems incredibly extreme to me. Some people are literally offended when you use the Lord's name in vain, but "oh my god" is such a ubiquitous and, to most, innocuous expression of surprise in our culture that I can't help but feel that it is the nay's that are going to have to deal with it.

    If we can agree to talk about how many people ghey hurts, then I'm going to repeat myself by saying I don't think I've hurt many people with it. But wait, let me back up a minute before I go there. I should first say that I was hearing and using ghey for a number of years myself before I ever thought about the homosexual = bad connection that bothers so many people here. So when people ask "why would you use that word?", the correct answer is because I grew up using it. The next question after that should be, "why do you keep using it?" And this is where we come to the answer I keep giving – I don't see enough harm in it to stop.

    Does it cause some harm? Sure. So does "oh my god." I am not interested in eliminating every word from my vocabulary that could cause some harm to some people. If you are diametrically opposed to such a position, then I guess we are just too different to agree. If you think that is a sane position for a person to have, but still think that I should stop using "ghey," then we must disagree in how much harm we think the word causes. And if that is the case, the only thing I can do is keep saying what I have been: in my experience, it hasn't been a very big problem. If, in your experience, it has, then we are both doing the same thing – acting as our experiences have taught us to.

    But you can't always tell when you've hurt someone with your words.
    That's true, but if that's your argument, it applies to everything anyone has ever said. How do you know you haven't hurt someone with some seemingly innocuous thing you've said? You don't, and I don't. But we do the best we can. And it's not like we're speaking in the dark either – you can sometimes tell when you have hurt someone's feelings, either because they said something, or because it just shows. That gives us information to base our future word choices on.

    Some people do use "ghey" as a slight against homosexuals.
    Ok… but I don't. Some people use "vagina" as an insult. Does that mean I have to use another word when I want to talk about vaginas?

    In response to Gwen:

    Again, no one feels it is a slight against sex to use the word "fuck" in so many insulting ways. I do! It makes my sex-positive heart sad inside. Right now I'm working to get rid of "suck", because, again, I'm in favor of sucking!

    That's quite a unique opinion you have then. Is there any reason that other people should feel the same way? Because the vast majority of people ignore ulterior meanings of a word when they are not relevant to the topic at hand. One exception would be when they make puns, but that's not really an exception, because I wouldn't say that an opportunity to make a joke is "irrelevant" to the topic at hand.

    Oh wait, did you mean "people who are forcing their feelings of hurt and marginalization on me by (*gasp*!) telling me about them"?

    You've misunderstood my meaning. Also, could you lose the attitude?

    By "forcing feelings" on me I meant that people were forcing their linguistic intuitions on me – not just in the sense that they were following their intuitions, but in the sense that they seemed to be saying that their linguistic intuitions were right and mine were wrong, period. My point is/was that if you had grown up in my shoes, you might feel the same way about ghey that I do.

  108. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    I know of a radio station where the traffic reporters aren't allowed to call vehicles disabled because someone in management has a disabled child and found it offensive.

    The irredeemably amateurish Guardian Style Guide banned the phrase 'commit suicide' because the editor, one David Marsh whose total qualifications for the post consist of having a prior job with the Guardian, had had a relative commit suicide and he claimed he was offended by the phrase because you committed a crime and suicide hadn't been a crime since 1960.

  109. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    The spelling 'ghey' seems a horrible compromise that pleases nobody. It's just so gay.

  110. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    I was supposed to cower in my home unless I was hale, apparently.

    Are you sure she didn't simply feel you would have got better quickly if you'd have stayed at home.

  111. Timothy Martin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

    "The spelling 'ghey' seems a horrible compromise that pleases nobody. It's just so gay."

    I know you're joking, but the spelling is actually somewhat appropriate, since it reflects the alternative pronunciation of the word which is something like G + the Canadian "eh." That's actually how I tend to pronounce it. …And pronouncing it differently from "gay" probably contributes to the lack of an assocation between the two, somewhat. Gee, I wonder if that's something I should've mentioned earlier in this discussion….

    Oh well, whaddaya gonna do.

  112. Gwen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

    First, I would like to point out that this is the argument the anti-ghey people should have been making all along. It doesn't matter what a word's history is if it doesn't hurt people today, and if a word does hurt people today, it doesn't matter how people felt about it in the past.

    Thanks for the advice! I'll be sure to take it into consideration! (Yes, this is my bright sarcasm voice. I happen to think it's a good argument, but I also think every other prong of the argument is necessary, and I'm not going to change my evidence-based belief in what works because one straight guy [who, um, didn't even change his mind?] thinks he speaks for all.)

    Now, I can't help but think our argument is about how many people "ghey" hurts, as opposed to the fact that it hurts anyone at all.

    Good catch!

    If we can agree to talk about how many people ghey hurts, then I'm going to repeat myself by saying I don't think I've hurt many people with it.

    I'm sure you think that. Based on my own experiences (as a highly outspoken minority member who has enough spoons to take on any pantslessness I see among my peers), I'm also sure you're wrong.

    Seriously, the longer this conversation goes on, the more I want to say something like "you're just saying that because you're a n*****", to see if that gets through to you. (You really think, if you use the word a lot, people–particularly nonwhite people, and even more specifically Black people–are going to feel safe calling you on it? When you say something that's bigoted–particularly if it's part of a pattern of behavior of saying bigoted things–people start to think you're a bigot. It's such wildly out-there, inappropriate, hateful behavior, there is no telling what sort of behavior you and your friends will engage in. Do you really think a guy who's just joining your circle of friends is going to literally risk his life saying "Hey, guys, I'm gay, and that hurts me."? There's a reason every step of the flowchart on calling out -ism behavior asks "Do you feel safe?") But, you know, since I'm white and all, that would be an incredibly stupid thing to do, even to prove a point. So I'd like you to consider how hard it is keeping that word out of your vocabulary–Is it a horrible strain? Do you use it among your white friends, but avoid doing it in front of nonwhite people? If you had/have Black friends who are totally O.K. with you using it, are you all right with doing it in public without doing a quick, what, melanin test on everyone around you? (And what do you do about people who pass as white but aren't?) And if you do avoid using it, is it really only because "my (white) friends disapprove"?

    Does it cause some harm? Sure. So does "oh my god."

    Yes, Christians and Jews are beaten up for their monotheism every day, and hearing people around them use "oh my god" and "goddammit" makes them afraid to come out of the religion closet. Unlike "gay", of course, which became part of the language because so many people are homosexual and have a lot of power in our society, which is why "gay" is used to mean "awesome". Oh wait, no, that's the other way around.

    That's true, but if that's your argument, it applies to everything anyone has ever said. How do you know you haven't hurt someone with some seemingly innocuous thing you've said? You don't, and I don't.

    Oh, come on. "Anything you do could hurt someone, so clearly you're advocating not doing anything!" Well, there's no logical fallacies there at all. (Because apparently eliminating things you know are hurtful to many people is the start of the SLIPPERY SLOPE OF DOOM.)

    Do you use this argument about things you care about? "Well, my boss could end up firing me for anything, so clearly you're advocating not doing anything at all!" when someone tells you showing up to work in your pajamas may not be such a good idea. "Well, I could be wasting money on anything I buy, so I might as well spend money on this thing I'm pretty sure is a scam! Otherwise you're saying I should never spend money ever!" "Why, anything you eat could be poisonous, so either I should eat this arsenic, or you're saying I should starve myself to death!"

    Nope, funnily enough, I only ever hear this argument when someone is defending the status quo. The last time I heard it, it was defending GateFail (short version: SGU decides to have someone use someone else's body for sex against the second woman's consent, claiming to be exploring the "tough questions" like, apparently, "rape: is it okay?". Well, anything you do could offend someone, so you might as well be as offensive as possible!), but then, that's the last argument I read up on.

    Some people do use "ghey" as a slight against homosexuals.
    Ok… but I don't. Some people use "vagina" as an insult. Does that mean I have to use another word when I want to talk about vaginas?

    No, it means you're going to have to use another word when you want to insult someone, one which is not derived from a word for the female genitalia. The "but I mean 'cunt' in a way which is totally non-gendered!" (or "slut", "bitch", &c.) argument is the one which is parallel to "but I don't mean gay people are bad or stupid when I say 'gay' means 'bad or stupid'!"; another version would be "but I use 'nigger' in a way which is totally divorced from race!" or "by 'tranny' I just mean non-gender-conforming in a way which totally doesn't implicate trans people!"

    That's quite a unique opinion you have then. Is there any reason that other people should feel the same way?

    Nope; I'm perfectly aware that the fuck/suck removal is pretty much a level of political-consciousness-about-language-use most people aren't willing to follow me to. And that's fine, because the misogyny and homophobia reinforced by that set of concepts is much less removable than the ones in bitch and cunt and twat and gay and fag and dyke.

    Also, could you lose the attitude?

    Seriously? Dude, I'm talking about my life, here. It's nice to know you can afford to be all impersonal and "oh, la, I'm just talking about my language use", but I'm the one who flinches when I hear "bitch" or a rape joke, and I'm lucky enough that that's entirely second-hand sensitivity. This is not an academic question for me and way too many people I know. You get to go home at the end of the day after hearing or saying this kind of thing; some of the people around you get to relive totally fun! experiences of violence, and wonder if you're safe to be alone with (or alone with when you're drunk, or alone with when outnumbered by you and your friends, or…).

    Take all that anger and hurt you feel when I'm sarcastic at you. (That, by the way, is your "I have the luxury of being thin-skinned because people don't usually act like jerks to me" privilege showing. This is not a bad thing! Everyone should have this privilege!) Now add in the weight of knowing that people like you have been hurt by people like me–stories you've grown up with, days of mourning. (Double it, because chances are you can't quite estimate how many stories of rape and domestic violence and abuse women grow up with, and neither you nor I has been privileged with the stories of gay-bashing and trans-bashing, from the medium-sized hurts to the deaths.) Multiply that by hearing it a thousand times a day, not necessarily even directed at you, thoughtless and casual cruelty, death by paper cuts. Do you have that in your head? Do you think you can maybe comprehend it? A little?

    O.K., that's what you're inflicting on some invisible minority of the people around you, every time you say "that's so gay". You're only seeing the spearpoint, the word "gay" used a slur, that's not so bad. You're not seeing the shaft, the weight behind it lent by decades or centuries of history, the context of the society that murdered Matthew Shepard (you've heard that name, at least?). And you're sure as hell not seeing the shields we carry around, already heavy with spears and snapped-off spearshafts, that we sometimes put down for a time because we're tired of carrying them around and mistrusting everyone around us, only to find that, no, this wasn't a safe space after all. But, hey, who cares, it's fun to throw spears around, isn't it? I mean, gods forbid you lose your right to hurt people.

  113. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    I feel like people are conflating multiple issues.

    Figurative use of "deaf", "blind" and similar words. There's an innate relation between the literal and figurative use. There's not a debate about whether blind people really can see (visually, literally) or not. Blind = can't see (eyes not working), and by extention, inability to "see" figuratively. I don't think such use implies anything at all about blind and deaf people, personally. But, whether it does or not, the extended use comes out of the core meaning of the word.

    Another issue is words aimed at a group of people. Nigger, faggot, whatever.

    The issue with gay is different. The extended use, the meaning sometimes spelled "ghey" does not come out of any innate undebatable quality of being gay. It's not taking the idea of finding a member of one's own gender attractive and figuratively extending it. Rather, it's taking a quality that only some associate with being gay, a negative quality, and extending that. That's something distinctly different from calling someone who's vision is fine blind because of their inability to figuratively see something.

  114. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    Curious that one person has the word with a different pronunciation. Personally, I'm familiar with this usage of that word, but both the "ghey" spelling and it being pronounced differently are new to me. So, I've either heard it pronounced indistinguishably from gay = homosexual (and older meanings), or seen it with the "gay" spelling, or both.

  115. Gwen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    Figurative use of "deaf", "blind" and similar words. There's an innate relation between the literal and figurative use. There's not a debate about whether blind people really can see (visually, literally) or not. Blind = can't see (eyes not working), and by extention, inability to "see" figuratively. I don't think such use implies anything at all about blind and deaf people, personally. But, whether it does or not, the extended use comes out of the core meaning of the word.

    Only if you conflate seeing with perceiving, and then being unable to see with being unable to perceive anything. My issue is more with blind being used for people who can perceive things, if they choose to, who are deliberately ignoring them ("turning a blind eye"), because that reinforces the idea that blind people can get over blindness if they would just try harder. (Just like using "depressed" for mild feelings of down-in-the-dump-ness reinforces incorrect ideas about clinical depression, e.g., if you only tried harder, you could get over it.)

    The main reason why we got onto the disability-metaphor tangent to begin with was people claiming that using "lame" to mean "bad, stupid, ineffectual, annoying, pathetic, frustrating, something I dislike" is a natural extension of, apparently, people with problems walking being bad, stupid, ineffectual, annoying, pathetic, frustrating, and something they dislike? I notice no one has argued for using "orphaned" and "in mourning" and "having leukemia" in the same way, so apparently the "but being lame is inferior!" argument didn't take off.

    Another issue is words aimed at a group of people. Nigger, faggot, whatever.

    Have you ever heard the "it's funny/effective because it's true" defense used for these words? I have. ("There's black people… and then there's niggers." I'm invited to being complicit in that one all the time, as a woman–"oh, I'm just talking about the women who are actually bitches, whores, skanks, and sluts! I don't mean you!" Well, yeah, you do, because I am a woman.) The reason words like "gay" or "faggot" are so popular–why they were invented for this use to begin with–is because someone, somewhere, thought it made sense with the core meaning of the word, and too many people said "haha, totally trufax!" (or whatever they said back then) and not enough people said "hey wait a minute, that doesn't make sense!"

    Curious that one person has the word with a different pronunciation. Personally, I'm familiar with this usage of that word, but both the "ghey" spelling and it being pronounced differently are new to me. So, I've either heard it pronounced indistinguishably from gay = homosexual (and older meanings), or seen it with the "gay" spelling, or both.

    The only time I have ever encountered the "ghey" spelling (no difference in pronunciation) is when people are responding to people calling it out as a homophobic slur. And I treat the dodge with as much respect as I do people saying "rhymes-with-witch" or "biotch", or "special needs" instead of "retarded", i.e., none. (People who spell it jipped or gipped instead of gypped? Are probably genuinely unaware of the etymology of the word. "Gay" hasn't got there yet, and hopefully will die out before it can.)

  116. Timothy Martin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

    Gwen:

    Also, could you lose the attitude?
    Seriously?

    Yes, seriously. I'm not interested in having a discussion with someone if both sides can't be respectful, and that is what I do not feel you are being. I've done nothing to deserve your sarcasm, and have remained polite in spite of it. I'm sorry this issue upsets you so, but your sarcasm actively makes it harder for people who disagree to see eye to eye. And if you can't discuss this issue respectfully here, with me, then who on earth can you discuss it with? Who can you be polite to, if not someone who's also being polite with you? One would think that if you really cared so much about this issue, you would be willing to do what it takes to convey your message in a way that inclines people to listen, as opposed to turn away.

    Ellen:
    The (optional) pronunciation difference is definitely real. At least several of the many, many entries for "ghey" on Urban Dictionary mention it, for what that's worth.

  117. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    Gwen: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=see

    I'm not conflating anything. "See" has had that extended use for a few centuries now. And it really is a natural metaphor. Certainly much more so gay and not worthy of being liked.

    By equating gay used pejoratively with blind and deaf used to mean mentally unperceptive you are actually making the case that using gay this way is okay. By that I mean, people are likely to take that message away with them from what you write, even though it's not what you intend.

    But there is a difference between that usage and extending gay to mean, not worthy of being liked (or however we might reword that meaning if we also don't like "lame").

    Oh, and you might check out the etymology of the words blind and deaf. You might be surprised. If I'm following correctly, for both words "confused" is an older meaning than what we'd now see as the literal meaning. That's using the Online Etymology Dictionary. Perhaps someone can check this in OED.

  118. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    P.S. to Gwen:

    There is a difference between calling a person, or group of people, by a label, versus using a lable for a person or group of people as an abstract quality. Two different issues. Not saying the first isn't an important issue. I'm saying, it's not the issue here.

  119. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    Timothy Martin: So, you've gone from saying the "lame" meaning of gay is pronounced differently, so saying it's sometimes pronounced differently. Two quite different things.

  120. Timothy Martin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    Ellen: What I wrote was "alternative pronunciation," as in, "you can choose between the pronunciation we've been talking about the whole time, or this other one."

  121. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    To the best of my knowledge the alternative pronunciation doesn't exist in the UK. I suspect it is fairly limited geographically.

  122. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

    Incidentally I've just been looking at the BNC, COCA and Time corpora and have in the first hundred or so entries in each corpus not found a single example of 'gay' being used in the sense of lame.

    Of course that is what you would expect if the usage is restricted to those under 25.

  123. Ellen said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    Timothy Martin: Your post was unclear. There was nothing to indicate that by "alternative pronunication" you meant there was a choice of how to pronounce it, rather than that word being pronounced differently.

  124. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    I notice no one has argued for using "orphaned" and "in mourning" and "having leukemia" in the same way, so apparently the "but being lame is inferior!" argument didn't take off.

    You're being wilfully obtuse once again. The reason the words are not used that way is because they're not. It's absurd to suggest that the absence of a metaphor or extended meaning in a language has any significance whatsoever.

  125. Timothy Martin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    Ellen: Jesus, I'm sorry for being unclear! Why are you jumping in my shit over this?

  126. Gwen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 1:52 am

    Yes, seriously. I'm not interested in having a discussion with someone if both sides can't be respectful, and that is what I do not feel you are being.

    I don't feel that it is respectful for you to accuse me and people who complain of this usage of "forcing [their] feelings on other people", which is implied by saying "the difference is" you're not doing so.

    And I really don't think "could you lose the attitude?" is a "respectful" way of phrasing your request for me to avoid sarcasm. It's really a very patronizing way of saying it. (I have never heard the phrase "lose the attitude" used towards me by anyone who was not [a] in a position of authority over me or [b] convinced that they were in a position of authority. Equals don't have attitudes, any more than they are uppity.) I mean, how would you have liked it if I'd said "could you lose the homophobia?" or "could you lose the heterosexual privilege?" or "could you lose the utterly ridiculous slippery-slope arguments?"

    I'm sorry this issue upsets you so, but your sarcasm actively makes it harder for people who disagree to see eye to eye.

    You have consistently said that you understand the arguments against using "gay" as a slur (despite somehow being surprised each time a new angle is tried…), and yet you refuse to change your use. I'm not going to convince you to change your mind, no matter how nice and polite and courteous and quiet I am about this issue. The best I can hope for is to show you that I do take it seriously and that it does hurt me, so that the next time you use "gay" as a slur you have that half-second pause for contemplation. Again: if you choose to go on using homophobic language, that's your call. And my linguistic intuition tells me, from years of having this and other conversations on oppression, not to fall into the trap of assuming a nice enough tone will convince anyone of anything except that it must not be such a big deal, if I'm not getting upset about it.

    I don't want this to be a conversation you walk away from, going "wow, we had a nice intellectual meeting of minds, where she told me what she thought and I told her what I thought, and we agreed to disagree, what a lovely intellectual discussion. I didn't change my mind, of course–it's not that important of an issue–but we both left with greater respect for the other's position." That may be what you want out of the conversation, but I do want you to be uncomfortable about your exercise of privilege. I want you to stop using homophobic language every bit as much as you want me to stop going on about it. (The difference, of course, is you can walk away from people going on about it, and I can't walk away from everyone saying "oh, hey, you're inferior".) This is isn't the mind-body problem, or the "can free will exist in a materialist universe" question, or some other intellectual debate with no real bearing on the rest of the world.

    And if you can't discuss this issue respectfully here, with me, then who on earth can you discuss it with? Who can you be polite to, if not someone who's also being polite with you?

    But, see, we're starting off from a position where you're being impolite. You are willfully choosing to contribute to the harm me and my friends face in the world. Is that polite? I think it's a hell of a lot less polite than responding to a ridiculous argument I hear every time (albeit less bluntly phrased than "ZOMG thought police!") with a bit of "do you mean that the way it sounds?" sarcasm. You can't stay neutral on a moving train, and you can't "politely" say "I know that it hurts people, and marginalizes, belittles, and silences them; I know it reinforces the beliefs of the proudly homophobic; I know it's implicitly demeaning to an underprivileged group in society; but because none of these things affects me personally, and your hurt doesn't matter to me, I'm going to continue using gay as a slur." There is no way to phrase that that will make it a "polite" thing to do.

    One would think that if you really cared so much about this issue, you would be willing to do what it takes to convey your message in a way that inclines people to listen, as opposed to turn away.

    Have you ever heard the term "tone argument"? It might be worth looking up.

    I mean, look, you just spent your entire comment responding to "I'm hurt and I'm pissed and this is more personal than you're treating it". Did I make any other arguments in that comment? Ones that might be more productive for you to address than "if I have to be a sarcastic bastard to get my point across, I'm going to be one, and I'm not backing down from that"?

  127. Gwen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 2:15 am

    By equating gay used pejoratively with blind and deaf used to mean mentally unperceptive you are actually making the case that using gay this way is okay. By that I mean, people are likely to take that message away with them from what you write, even though it's not what you intend.

    But there is a difference between that usage and extending gay to mean, not worthy of being liked (or however we might reword that meaning if we also don't like "lame").

    For the record, I do think the weight of history and the naturalness of extending the vision-and-hearing-as-perception metaphor does make the issue of inaccurate metaphorical use of blind and deaf a qualitatively different issue (although related and no less important!) than the use of lame and gay as slurs. These are discrete subjects and if you agree with me on one I am hardly going to come after you with a pitchfork screaming "agree with me on the other! You promised!"

    I also think that vision and hearing as perception is a fairly obvious body-based metaphor to the sighted, which is why I suggested alternatives like "self-blindfolded" or "has one's eyes/ears covered" for "obtuse, willfully ignorant" and "in the dark" ("being fed white noise"?) for "ignorant of, through no fault of one's own", when referring to problems in the perception of sighted, hearing people. It's more evocative, more precise in meaning, and still metaphorical, and it has the advantage of divorcing vision from sightedness fairly effectively. (I've also seen the suggestion of "masked" for "double-blind"–again, more evocative.)

    There is a difference between calling a person, or group of people, by a label, versus using a lable for a person or group of people as an abstract quality.

    Of course there is. I'm not arguing against calling blind people blind, gay people gay, or thirteen-year-old girls thirteen-year-old girls. I do object to comparing people who aren't blind, gay, or thirteen-year-old girls blind, gay, or thirteen-year-old girls as an insult which relies on stereotypes about the negative abstract qualities of blind people (ignorant and unperceptive, possibly willfully so), gay people (inferior), and thirteen-year-old girls (silly, self-absorbed, and easily dismissed).

    You're being wilfully obtuse once again. The reason the words are not used that way is because they're not. It's absurd to suggest that the absence of a metaphor or extended meaning in a language has any significance whatsoever.

    Perhaps you missed the comment I was responding to? The argument (not an uncommon one when the issue of the acceptability of the word "lame" comes up) was that "lame" is used for "inferior, something I dislike" not because people who are, literally, lame are inferior or disliked by the speaker, but because the state of being mobility-impaired is inferior to the state of being not mobility-impaired, and the idea of becoming mobility-impaired is disliked by the speaker.

    The point of the comparison to conditions such as orphanhood, widowhood, leukemia, baldness, &c. is to demonstrate that this is likely not the reasoning behind "lame" as an insult, and certainly not the reasoning everyone who uses "lame" as an insult has worked through. It's entirely a post hoc justification, and one which is demonstrably false.

  128. Achim said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    @ Gwen:

    My issue is more with blind being used for people who can perceive things, if they choose to, who are deliberately ignoring them ("turning a blind eye"), because that reinforces the idea that blind people can get over blindness if they would just try harder.

    I think you are utterly wrong there. At least in German, the equivalent of turning a blind eye does certainly not imply that blind people could see if they only tried hard enough. It ist just the opposite: The phrase carries a reproach, an accusation as it implies that the person referred to could perceive the situation in question just if s/he only wanted to. So it is not a degree of ability but of willingness.

    In the meantime I have reconsidered my post of yesterday. I am quite sure that metaphorical uses of perceptive disabilities are common and accepted in German, but physical disabilities the situation is quite different.

    German lahm, cognate of "lame", is no longer used to describe a physical disability. You rather say that someone is halting, has a walking problem, is confined to crutches or a wheelchair etc. Lahm is only used in other contextes. If used for human performance it expresses that low performance could have been avoided, but for a certain lack of enthusiasm – like "a lame speech" or "a lame joke".

  129. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    It looks like this lively discussion is beginning to produce anemic arguments, with serious danger of becoming a cancerous bloat.

    Let's stop it here before the orphaned posts of anonymous trolls pop up.

  130. bianca steele said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Timothy: As you already said, there's a simple solution: use a different word. For example, when you start your first job, and you're told "we name the printers here after pets on Star Trek," you may want to respond "That's gay!" Just say, "That's stupid!" instead. Your problem will be totally solved. Believe me.

    This would satisfy the campaign mentioned in the OP too.

  131. Stephen Jones said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    Timothy: As you already said, there's a simple solution: use a different word.

    It's not quite that easy. Why don't you and Gwen make a decision to never say 'I'm tired' or 'I'm hungry' for the next three months. Unless you have very regular habits and are fed by your mother, I think you'll find the offensive phrases keep popping out.

  132. Timothy Martin said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    In addition to that, there's a more fundamental issue. You're talking about a "solution," but to what problem? That I offend some people some of the time? I've already said that I have no interest in eliminating every word from my vocabulary that has a greater than zero probability of hurting someone. That's just not how it works. The connotations of "ghey" (vis-a-vis homosexuals) are simply not bad enough to merit change, and no one here has been able to give any argument to the contrary that doesn't amount to "You should trust my judgement, because I know I'm right." If only debate were that simple.

    So as it stands to me, there is no problem that needs a solution here. I'm not going to go out of my way to change how I talk, and eliminate words from my vocabulary in order to "correct" something, unless I'm darn sure it needs to be corrected.

  133. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    Yes, some people seem to be missing the point that "What are the effects of using 'ghey' or 'lame' to indicate disapproval?" is an empirical question that might very well have different answers in different speech communities.

    My personal intuitions based on my experiences and based on where and when I live are that I have no problem with "lame" to indicate disapproval, but I'm not comfortable with "gay/ghey" to indicate disapproval. However, other people, who aren't bigots and who aren't lacking in human decency, may genuinely have different experiences and hence different linguistic intuitions.

    Hypothetically, if there were a community in New Guinea or the Amazon whose word for "I don't like you" was pronounced just like the English word "gay" — or even "homo" or "fag" or "dyke" for that matter — it might be an unfortunate and awkward coincidence, but it wouldn't be a reason for those people not to use the word.

    The same kind of thing might very well be true with the slightly different varieties of English spoken in different communities by different generations. My honest intuitions about the linguistic community I inhabit are that "lame"-as-disapproval does not cause people to think negatively of the mobility-impaired — my peers consider "lame=disabled" an outdated use that wouldn't enter my mind. As it happens, I'm not so comfortable with "gay"-as-disapproval, but the point is that it's entirely possible that "gay"-as-disapproval has different meanings and different effects in different communities. It's an empirical question.

  134. bianca steele said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    @Stephen: Huh? Nobody is telling Timothy, "don't say you're gay" if this would be to force him to deny who he is. Nobody is saying, "I feel the usage of 'gay' that's described in the campaign has negative connotations, and I realize the reason is my own homophobia and insecurity, so I'm going to work on my own reactions towards e.g. as a child having my cello playing called 'gay' by my male classmates, who were only helping me understand what society thinks about girls who like classical music by forcing me to feel something they knew would be uncomfortable." (Because declarative assertions only have emotional content if it's read into the text by the reader.)

    Are you suggesting that you or Timothy you really finds it difficult to keep from saying "I'm tired" to your supervisor during work hours? Do you find it unbearable to refrain from bullying your peers, insulting their clothes and hairstyles and choice of reading material, and to find alternative ways to describe what you think about them that they won't interpret as offensive? This isn't a matter of definition and this isn't a subtle question.

  135. Ellen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    Timothy, arguments have been made that don't equate to "You should trust my judgement, because I know I'm right.". See, for one example, the post from Mark F on August 19, 2009 at 1:17 pm. You may not buy these arguments. But they aren't at all the same as "Trust me because I know I'm right". Disagree if you like, but don't say the arguments haven't been made.

  136. Bloix said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    "I've already said that I have no interest in eliminating every word from my vocabulary that has a greater than zero probability of hurting someone. That's just not how it works."

    translation into standard English: "I am an asshole. Deal."

  137. Timothy Martin said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    Ellen: You're right, what I said wasn't completely accurate. Other arguments were made. I didn't think any of them were very convincing, but still, they were made. My apologies.

    …By the way, I'm still wondering what got you so upset about the "alternative" thing. It's not like I blamed our misunderstanding on you or anything.

  138. Gwen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    "I've already said that I have no interest in eliminating every word from my vocabulary that has a greater than zero probability of hurting someone. That's just not how it works."

    translation into standard English: "I am an asshole. Deal."

    Or the more charitable (and more precise!) version, "I've already indicated that I will never eliminate any usage of a word from my vocabulary, even with a significant probability of hurting, frightening, and triggering people who are already mistreated by society, unless I receive feedback from my immediate social group (i.e., the people I care about) to do so, or unless it's clear the connection between the word I'm misusing hurtfully and the insult implied by it is not understood by my immediate social group."

    No, wait, that just boils down to "I will continue to behave like an asshole and hurt people. Deal." Or… what you said.

    Man, considering this word is just one word and is no big deal, some people seem to be really invested in saying it. I know why I'm invested in people not saying it, but I can't see why it's so important to some people to keep using a hurtful and homophobic slur. I mean, I understand the "well, it's no skin off my nose if my dickish behaviors hurt you" thing, but some straight people seem actively invested in hurting people with their dickish behaviors. Why is it so important to you?

    Anyway, I have an even better idea for a word to replace "gay" as a slur than "stupid" or whatever. When talking about things, say "that's so black" instead of "that's so gay"; when talking about people, say "you're such a nigger" instead of "you're so gay". I'm sure that that couldn't possibly be hurtful enough to register on Timothy's Bigotry Radar! Why, his friends probably wouldn't even object! As long as, in your mind, the word you're using as a slur is completely separate from its historical (and, you know, current) meaning, it should be completely fine! You can even spell it "blhack" and "niggger" instead to make the difference clear. It's guaranteed* non-offensive.

    Good idea?

    * Some restrictions may apply. May not be applicable in anywhere with a history of racial conflict, e.g., New England, the South, the West and Midwest, the Ohio River Valley, and all places outside the continental United States. Please exercise caution. Keep contents separate from context at all times. Side effects on society may include nausea, dizziness, accusations of racism, validation of racism, rage, fear, fainting spells, undereducation, denial of employment, inability to obtain credit, poverty, disease, injury, electric shock, and even death.

  139. Ellen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    Timothy: I was never upset.

  140. Gwen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    I think you are utterly wrong there. At least in German, the equivalent of turning a blind eye does certainly not imply that blind people could see if they only tried hard enough. It ist just the opposite: The phrase carries a reproach, an accusation as it implies that the person referred to could perceive the situation in question just if s/he only wanted to. So it is not a degree of ability but of willingness.

    Exactly. If I say "James is deliberately refusing to see the logic of my arguments" by saying "James is blind to the logic of my arguments", the statement can only be understood by taking "blind" to mean "deliberately refuses to see", which implies that Mary (who is blind) could see stuff if she only tried hard enough (and so she is inhibiting herself by her laziness or desire for ignorance, as James is), as I'm encouraging James to do. Whereas if I say that James has closed his eyes to the logic of my arguments, or has blindfolded himself so he can't see the logic of my arguments, the only thing I'm implying is that sighted people who keep their eyes closed or blindfold themselves can see better with the blindfold off and eyes open, which is a fairly uncontroversial statement.

    Using blind to refer to, as you put it, "not a degree of ability but of willingness" has to draw on the idea that blindness is not a matter of ability but willingness, which is not only untrue but actively harmful. I hold that when discussing someone's unwillingness to perceive something, it makes more sense to use a metaphor which refers to a situation in which someone's perception is limited by choice (e.g., self-blindfolding).

    Another metaphor which builds on harmful ideas is the use of "crutch" to mean "something someone relies on so much it is harmful to them because they become dependent upon it". Crutches aren't bad; no one relies on them because they feel like weakening their leg muscles. So it'd be interesting if people started using "crutch" to mean things they need to function as they want to. "My partner is the perfect crutch for getting through life happily" or "Wow, I was just about to give up on the day and collapse, but that lovely comment you left on my fic was a great crutch for continuing through the workday." Destigmatize crutches! Crutches are great, like singular they and prepositions at the end of sentences.

  141. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    I don't think anyone's being an asshole. I think what we have is genuine disagreement about how harmful use of a certain word is.

    If I thought that using a certain slang word was likely to increase the amount of hurt feelings or discrimination or mistreatment in my society by 2 or 3 percent, I wouldn't use the word. But if I didn't think it increased the amount of those things by any more than 0.000001 percent, I wouldn't consider that a strong enough reason to stop using it.

    As a matter of fact, I don't like the use of "gay" as a slur, and I don't use it, and I do believe that to most people I encounter in my speech community, that use of the word is perceived as connected to the "homosexual" meaning. But I just wanted to try to clarify what I perceive people here to actually be disagreeing about.

  142. qma said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    i call bullshit. on all of this. it's silly to say that when people say some shit is gay that that word has nothing to do with homosexuality – what they mean is that they aren't speaking with any real contempt of homosexuality, that they are speaking with humor.

    humor was surely evolved in humans as a social adhesive. what words people use isn't often very important, the attitudes that people have on the subject are the real issue. changing attitudes is a long and hard task, but the progress has been amazing. so if the usage of terms like gay and fag are on the rise as pejoratives in youth culture, can we not instead see this as a mechanism to cope with and accept the cultural shift? we know what we are saying when we call someone gay, indeed it is sometimes accompanied with verbose descriptions of the specific sexual acts they might like, but what we're really trying to say is "hey man, i really like you, i'm calling you names because we can laugh and play around and it feels good let's be friends" – and i assure you it would be very awkward if it came out that the insulter literally has a problem with the existence of homosexuality.

    basically, gay means fag but it doesn't matter because its usage is not promoting homophobia, indeed, if anything it probably helps drive people toward more tolerant viewpoints.

    all the wordfags need to relax. (and yes in case you guys don't get around the internet much, fag is a viable suffix now too, e.g. artfags…)

  143. Stephen Jones said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    This isn't a matter of definition and this isn't a subtle question.

    No, it's a rather idiotic insulting troll.

    Barney Frank said talking to some people was like talking to the dining room table. Communicating with a couple of people on this thread is like talking to the clothes drier on turbo spin cycle. I can't be bothered any more.

  144. bianca steele said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    Timothy: to what problem?
    You referred to needing to watch what you say when you're not in a group made up strictly of your peers–your friends understand that your contempt for what you call "ghey" is OK, maybe because they share the same feelings, but other people won't–or maybe your friends will understand that you're expressing contempt ironically and don't "really" mean it–but you're only guessing about what the other people you mentioned really think.

    Sorry if my sarcasm caused offense.

  145. Gwen said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    Skullturf, the person we were discussing, Timothy, has repeatedly stated that the reason he is going to go on using the term, despite the fact that he does believe it hurts some people (and not an insignificant portion, either), is he doesn't believe the people he hangs out are hurt by it.

    Now I could dance around the issue by saying he's behaving disrespectfully, or that he needs to lose the attitude, but regardless of whether or not he himself is an asshole, his behavior–continuing to do something you know to be harmful to others because it doesn't affect you, and solely because you can't be bothered to put in the relatively insignificant effort to stop–is very much a textbook example of assholish (or unempathic, or narcissistic, if you prefer) behavior. Do you disagree?

  146. Lugubert said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    No connection for four days, and there’s a mile of comments…

    "[(myl) The OED's earliest citation for this sense is from 1978:"

    A pure-bred Swede, b. 1943, at the time having lived in Sweden all my life except for a day in Copenhagen, I knew of an emerging gay = homosexual meaning in 1958 ± 2 years.

    And I just smile when the fairly official magazine India Perspectives invariably describes local festivals as having people “dancing away in gay abandon.”

    [(myl) You've confused the senses. The OED's earliest citation for gay "homosexual" is from 1922; the earliest citation for gay "foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of" is from 1978.]

  147. mollymooly said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    The OED's earliest citation for gay "homosexual" is from 1922

    Actually, the OED pre-1941 citations for "gay" are in marked as dubious, with the note:

    A number of quotations have been suggested as early attestations of this sense (see a sample below). It is likely that, although there may be innuendo in some cases, these have been interpreted anachronistically in the light either of the context (for example the disguise as a homosexual of the protagonist of quot. 1941), or of knowledge about an author's sexuality.

    Still, 1941 is still quite a respectable antiquity.

    I think part of the problem the TB4YS campaign faces is that the "gay" issue is different from the "faggot" issue, so a single campaign finds it hard to address both.

  148. Stephen Jones said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    You've confused the senses. The OED's earliest citation for gay "homosexual" is from 1922;

    I've looked up the OED corpus at the BYU site, and there is no citation at all for 1922. The earliest use I can find for 'gay' as homosexual is a 1955 citation of it as 'an American euphemism for homosexual', which suggests it predates 1955 by some years or decades.

    I can't find a single entry for 'gay' in the sense of 'lame'.

    Presumably what the BYU calls the OED corpus isn't the same as the citations in the actual dictionary, or do they have an earlier version?

  149. Maureen said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 12:15 am

    I was a schoolchild in the eighties, and I remember my first hearing of "gay" in the "lame" sense. AFAIK, none of us connected it with homosexuals.

    Why? Because everybody knew that the polite term was "homosexual", and the impolite term was "homo". "Gay" was not on our radar in any way. I think perhaps some of the older boys associated the wrestling game "Smear the Queer" with pejoratives for homosexuals, but most of us apparently thought it was just a rhyme with "smear". (This would change in junior high.)

    So if anything, for the child culture of those of us living away from the coasts, at least, "gay" meaning lame came first, and the homosexual connotation was something that showed up years and years later. (Even then, gay didn't seem like a particularly polite term for a homosexual. I certainly would never have used it in front of anyone, because it was so slangy, until at least the middle of the nineties.)

    Of course, this doesn't explain why the term would wax and wane in popularity (although all sorts of eighties terms have come back into child usage), and of course it doesn't have anything to do with how pejorative the homosexual community might feel it to be. But it certainly does explain a lot of the separation in people's minds between the uses of the word.

    I always thought paddywagons were all about the padlocks on them, myself. (As illustrated in many a Warner Brothers cartoon, all paddywagons and jail doors in my child mind were padlocked.)

  150. Matt said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    I think I have to completely agree with Tycho on this one. I mean, this sort of language usage is incredibly common. And why is TB4YS targeting only homosexual/transgender insults? As so many people have said before me, lame is a common word used as a pejorative. "That's so lame." "That's retarded." But you don't see TB4YS complaining about that as an insult to mentally or physically handicapped people.

    The fact that they're singling out this sort of abusive language (the term gay) seems like they're simply supplying a new reason for young people to ridicule homosexual/transgender teens by turning them into a special interest case.

    Everyone's teased for something. Learning to cope with this sort of ridicule is a part of life. Suck it up and move on.

  151. QaF said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    You're talking about a "solution," but to what problem? That I offend some people some of the time? I've already said that I have no interest in eliminating every word from my vocabulary that has a greater than zero probability of hurting someone. That's just not how it works. The connotations of "ghey" (vis-a-vis homosexuals) are simply not bad enough to merit change

    The problem is not just offending people – which it does – but with the fact that "gay" is still very much in use, especially by gay people themselves, as the most neutral term for person (or male) of homosexual orientation. (If you need 'evidence' for this, just search for the names of gay rights groups. They almost universally use the term "gay" – sometimes "queer" but not as commonly – but they don't use the term "homosexual", and there simply aren't any other suitable neutral terms, particularly gender-neutral ones.)

    By perpetuating the use of the term to refer to anything negative, it callously reinforces the social stigma associated with being gay. This is not just about you insulting people who hear your utterance, but the larger social impact of your continued usage. Even if someone used the term "gay" as a general pejorative without being aware of its connection to homosexuals, the fact that other people in society do use it with the intent of maintaining a connection between homosexuality and negativity means that the generalized use of "gay" unwittingly facilitates and legitimizes the bigot's use of "gay" which derogates gay people. It's easy to go from "gay = homosexual" and "gay = bad" to "homosexual = bad". And it makes no difference if some young person learns the generalized pejorative use before the homosexual use; the fact that both uses are still current is what maintains the toxic connection.

    Your claim that people in your age group use "gay" primarily as a pejorative term rather than one referring to homosexuals is simply bogus. I myself am of your age group, and so are most of my gay friends, and we all use "gay" primarily to refer to homosexuals. I've so far not encountered a gay person who usually uses "gay" unironically in the way you're stubbornly defending. It's clear why – to do so would be to feed into and thereby bolster the stigma that fuels the pejorative use of "gay"; it would be a kind of self-hatred. Your comments simply suggest to me that you don't have (out) gay people in your regular social circle, or you wouldn't be so comfortable and smug maintaining an insulting use of the term.

    Your argument that you've used the term unthinkingly (i.e. w/o making a connection between its negative use and its homosexual reference) can only fly once – before someone has pointed out all the problems associated with it. After that, if you elect to continue using it despite knowing its hurtful and inimical social effects (and especially if you cling to it just because you like using it or think you're entitled to because you're used to it), then you're simply being socially irresponsible. You're placing your own personal convenience or whatever before the consideration for the social plight of others. It's a callous position one can only take if one doesn't have to deal with being on the receiving end of the social stigma. It's selfish.

    It's sad and ironic because, in a way, the campaign at TB4YS is really meant for people like you. (By which I mean Timothy Martin, Tycho, Matt, and ilk.)

  152. QaF said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    Sorry, my last line should read: "Timothy Martin, qma, Matt, and ilk".

  153. Marcus Brainard said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    The Problem of the term "That's So Gay!" comes from TV & Movie writers who write material for their shows. "Robot Chicken, The Boondocks, South Park, Family Guy, American Dad & The Simpsons" to name a few. They use "That's So Gay!" in their material writing. In some places when you try to correcting people not to use that term, chances are you might be shot in the face with a gun or be beheaded by a Samuari Sword or have "The Pack" thinking you're the nest Matt Sheppard. A good example is the term "A Nigga Moment" by the screen writer who does "The Boondocks" it's a good term in his circle, but my version is known as "A Medary Conflict" the name is comes from a prestige school that I got removed as a 5 year old kid. Once the term, "The Bataan Death March" was used as a term for a bad trip or family vacations gone bad. And many of these people who use this term never experinced this horrible event and there are still a handful of survivors that unable to tell these people to use another term for their bad vacation trips and bummer trips. In some circles, the name "Edsel" doesn't always used for a car that failed in the market. It has been used for heroic & brave, African-American girls. The term came from an underground comic book series called, "The Hero Discovered, Mage" written by a minor league comic book artist/writer & his leading lady was a brave, & heroic African-American girl who drove a 1959 Edsel Corsair & went under the name of "Edsel". Reefering good, & brave, African-Americans as "Edsels" is okay for the "Mage" readers, but PC for the main-people. So there are also terms that should be looked at also. This country will not accept The Gay Population because they fear that God will destory us as he did to two "sin cities" in the Bible. Thank you for your time & get to the TV screen writers and make them drop the line, "That's So Gay!" for their TV characters. Marcus Brainard

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