Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Introduction, Middle Section


It may be helpful to place the previous discussion in a larger context. Many of us will remember the instruction of our high school English teachers, who held that there were only two types of words, acceptable and unacceptable. The latter category included not only taboo terms (“four-letter words"), which were by definition unacceptable, but even everyday slang. In order to avoid being labeled a geek, one had to relax (at least when out of the teacher’s hearing) the ban on slang.

Today it is recognized that there are not just two, but many levels of style. Classifications differ, but many would agree that the following should be noted.

First, there are recondite terms, including archaic and obsolete language found in older poetry and historical documents. Today, few would recognize the old terms baedling and ingle, both designating types of homosexual. One would need to know them, however, to interpret certain historical texts properly.

The major professions, including the medical, psychiatric and legal realms, have developed specialized vocabularies of their own. The contributions of these three professions have been significant in the formation and expansion of the homolexis.

Then there is the official language of the bureaucracy-—or bureaucratese for short. As government has gotten out of the business of repressing homosexuality, those in the helping professions have developed certain ways of describing gay clients that are thought to be less judgmental.

Another category may be termed, for want of a better term, conventional. This is the sort of language that one might use in applying for a job.

Trenching on this is everyday talk. This colloquial category is often thought to colorless and normal, but in fact it is a distinct level of style.

Then there is a broad category of street language, which has absorbed some formerly taboo words. Depending on the situation, certain expressions are “fighting words” on the street. For example, in the inner city it is not advisable to address someone as a punk, since this implies that the individual is a passive homosexual (a sense derived from prison usage).

As has been noted above, the argot of the criminal underworld is designed to communicate only within a certain circle, and to keep outsiders in the dark. In as much as homosexuality has long been criminalized in the Western world (where, finally, it is so no longer), there is an interface between these two realms. For example, queer originally referred to counterfeit money, which the criminal would try to pass. Today, queer has become a vogue word in certain Movement and academic circles.

At the very bottom lies the diminishing world of taboo words. Many of these have been absorbed into street language, though not all.

Difficult to place in terms of level are special argots, as of hoboes and prisoners. Both of these have had some influence on the homolexicon. Formerly, in fact, during the closet era, homosexual language was another special argot.

Some hold that one can make a clear-cut distinction between pejorative terms, which are hurtful to gays (on the one hand) and neutral and positive terms (on the other). Over time, though, there have been many instances of crossover. Ostensibly, sociologists created the terms deviant and variant as neutral designations; yet they have acquired a pejorative connotation. Dyke was long considered disparaging, but today most lesbians accept it.

To some extent levels of style correlate with socioeconomic status. It is a truism that linguistic innovation tends to cluster at the upper and lower ends of the socioeducational scale. The middling orders of society are generally content with the language habits they grew up with. Indeed the bourgeoisie, to use a term still current in Europe, find comfort in the tried and true. However, professors, scientists, medical researchers and legal authorities invent new terms to express advances, or what are thought to be advances in their own fields. As such terms as aviation, stratosphere, autoimmune deficiency, and affirmative action suggest, these words formerly relied on Greco-Roman roots. Today, the world of computers is introducing new terms, some of which are much more commonplace in origin (reboot, default setting, and so forth). Note that this whole phalanx of innovation stems from those who are “symbolic analysts,” and therefore highly educated, but not necessarily wealthy. At the upper ranges of the scale, represented by the very wealthy and the “permanent government” of politicians and high-level bureaucrats, there is not much linguistic innovation. At the other end of the scale innovation stems from those who are commonly regarded as marginal—disadvantaged ethnic groups, alcoholics and drug users, and those engaged in shady or criminal practices. Yet the very lowest strata do not participate much. The homeless are too busy getting a meal and a place to sleep.

Many sexual terms are stigmatized not only by their “low” origin, but by the very thing they designate, which shows degrees of marginality. Thus “whore” is less marginal than “fuck.” The English-speaking world, and to a lesser degree in other advanced industrial countries has witnessed a growing de-tabooing of the so-called four-letter words.

Because words for bodily functions tend to fall in the realm of taboo, or at least are subject to censorship by polite society, there tends to be a rapid turnover in preferred terms. Over the last two centuries there have been a number of changes in the official term for a room in which bodily wastes are disposed of. “Water closet” is now obsolete, while “toilet” is standard. Both are, or were, euphemisms. Fifty years ago, “john” bordered on the taboo; now it acceptable in informal speech. Still, one is unlikely to find rooms in restaurants designated “johns”—they are “men” and “women.”

Euphemism has often played a role in terms for same-sex behavior and persons. Some prefer not to use a designation at all, asking “Is he one?” and “Is she like that?”

Changing politics have also affected words. In the early 1970s gay-movement activists rejected the term homosexual, which was felt to be too clinical, preferring gay. Then when it was pointed out that this monosyllable referred to men only (or was perceived to do so) the dyad lesbian and gay became standard (sometimes shortened to lesbigay. Queer has had a considerable run, but seems to be fading. Now many feel obliged to resort to the “inclusive” acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans). This has even made its way into other languages, as Italian.

As has been noted above, some observers hold that one should separate negative terms-—unfortunately very numerous—-from those that are neutral or positive. Alas, the boundary is hard to fix. Some seemingly negative terms, have been adopted by gay people themselves, either because they had no others or, regrettably, may have gone along with some of the stereotyping.

Some words have been “detoxified” and recycled by the users themselves, who openly embrace words that the society has invented to disparage them. Thus queer, and to a lesser extent dyke, fairy, and fag. Marquis de Sade was the first to do this intentionally. For example, he referred to masturbation (which he praised) as “pollution.”


The eureka experience commonly occurs when we learn a term and then recognize that it specifies a phenomenon we were formerly only vaguely aware of. The phenomenon comes more sharply into view. Well, yes and no, for the new name may carry with it ideological baggage that serves to obscure the phenomenon as much as to clarify. Perhaps this ideological tincturing is inevitable, but its effects can nonetheless be measured, and to a substantial degree, reduced.

What would our mental world be like if there were no sexual terms? Some information could be conveyed by euphemism and gesture, but the range of what could be discussed would be radically impoverished. It is often thought, though with considerable exaggerating, that such an dearth of sexual terms prevailed in Victorian times and the old Soviet union. There is no doubt, however, that driving such terms underground has an effect on consciousness. The intention of such censorship is to restrict the imagination, and therefor the range of activities. However, an opposite effect may also occur, whereby taboo behavior is glamorized by lending it the aura of the forbidden.

As we go back through the centuries, we approach eras in which such vocabularies were more and more rudimentary. We never quite reach the zero state. It is clear from this reflection in what is sometimes termed the diachronic or longitudinal history of words that there has been a progressive process of accumulation. How was this accumulation achieved? The tempo and character vary from one language to another, and these differences are what lend value to the comparative approach. Linguistic dynamism: we are always shedding and acquiring terms. The usual approach, which is synchronic, neglects this element. Yet we can all recall when we heard certain key terms for the first time, and our curiosity as to their origins. We may also be aware that few terms are transparent. They often stem from some ideological fundament—whether theological, medical, legal, political, or liberationist--and bear an element of “steering” bequeathed them from that original. Thus language offers us lenses to see things not previously perceived, but the lenses may be splotchy, partial, and distorting.

In this realm words do not just drop from the sky, but are introduced with specific motivations. Commonly the words of the homolexicon are anchored in ideologies. Among these are medieval anti-Sodomy ideas, the Renaissance revival of classical antiquity; the Enlightenment critique of established ideas, medical and pseudomedical theories of the nineteenth century, and the modern gay movement. For better or worse, they are part of the great intellectual journey of Western Civilization.

We turn now to more general considerations about the relation between language and thought. A common-sense view is that language mirrors thought. Further reflection indicates that the connection is not so simple. In crucial ways language may condition, even determine thought. It is hard even to begin to think about a subject without having the appropriate words. Yet as we acquire these words we are inevitably “steered” in certain directions.

Linguists have canvassed this matter in terms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf in fact formulated a landmark explanation of the relationship between thought and language. In a nutshell, the thoughts that we construct are based upon the language that we speak and the words that we use. The strong form of this view is linguistic determinism, which holds that language determines thought. A more moderate version has it that language partially influences or conditions thought. These two positions leave much room for debate. Most linguists currently maintain one of three following positions: language heavily influences thought, language partially influences thought, or the matter is too broadly conceived and cannot be resolved in a general way.
Whorf held that human beings may be able to think only about objects, processes, and conditions that have language associated with them; this amounts to linguistic determinism). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also seeks to explain the relationship between different languages (French, English, Arabic, Chinese, and so on) and thought. Whorf claimed that culture is largely determined by language (linguistic relativity). Different cultures perceive the world in different ways. Essential to Whorf’s concept is that culturally essential objects, conditions, and processes usually are defined by a plethora of words, while things that cultures perceive as unimportant are usually assigned one or two words. Several studies have failed to bear out this contention. It is commonly believed that Eskimos have many words for snow, while we have only a few. Field studies have shown that Eskimos in fact have only a limited vocabulary for snow. Stephen O. Murray showed that the primary gay vocabulary of Guatemala was richer than that of San Francisco. Yet surely gay life is more complex in the Bay City than in Guatemala.

A common view among some gay scholars is that there was no concept for homosexuality before the invention of the word in 1869. It follows, then, that there is no such thing as ancient Greek or Golden Age Islamic homosexuality. This view is generally known as Social Constructionism. The conclusion that homosexuality is absent in earlier civilizations and cultures seems extreme, because we have indications of same-sex behavior throughout the world.

Social Constructionism holds that concepts are completely dependent on words. “No term, no concept” is the mantra of this group of scholars. A little reflection will show that this is not so. International relations existed at least since the second millennium BCE in the ancient Near East; yet the word “international” was coined only in the eighteenth century. Here is another example. For countless ages human beings have been convinced (wrongly as it turns out) that the sun rotates around the earth. We still speak of the sun rising and setting. It was not necessary to be acquainted with the word geocentrism to understand this traditional, once-influential theory. So too, with homosexuality.

This book rejects the Social Construction approach in its strong form. That is not to say, however, that words do not color the view of the phenomenon they designate. To put it another way, words frame, occlude, and distort. They are not transparent membranes affording a completely clear view. Words will inevitably direct our attention to certain aspects of a phenomenon, while neglecting others. Some words will turn out to be more useful than others, taking us closer to a clear view—if not entirely achieving their goal. Many in fact hold that goal will never be achieved, because all words are theory-laden. Some theories are better than others. The word homosexuality discarded (or largely discarded) the pejorative charge of such words as sodomy and buggery, opening the way for a more neutral and scientific understanding of the problem. That the introduction of the word homosexuality did not guarantee a wholly favorable result goes without saying. We still have not arrived at a generally accepted understanding of same-sex behavior that is nonjudgmental. But the introduction of the word homosexual was an important marker along the way to this achievement.


For a long time gays and lesbians have responded to popular culture as diffused by the mass media. Radio afforded little scope. However, we have noted above the the BBC series that popularized the reputed role of Polari as the “gay language.”

Films and plays have had an effect on the homolexis, one sometimes not evident to those who do not follow those media closely. An example is friend of Dorothy, reflecting the gay men’s adulation of Judy Garland in the seventies and eighties. (Garland’s most famous role was Dorothy in the film version of “The Wizard of Oz.”). Also owing its popularity to the movies is Blanche, initially derived from Blanche Dubois of “Streetcar Named Desire,” reinforced by the Joan Crawford character Blanche Hudson in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” A nineteenth-century French character lies behind Camille, a drama queen who goes from one love episode to another. The contemporary American novels of Patrick Dennis contributed Auntie Mame, a middle-aged, somewhat fussy gay man.

The success of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, the love story of two Western ranch hands, has caused brokeback to begin to appear in everyday conversation as a near-synonym for "gay." Jesse Sheidlower, who heads the US office of the Oxford English Dictionary, reported that he heard a man say "He got a Hummer? That's so brokeback!" Naturally, he queried the usage: "The speaker said it was used in reference to things that are so exaggeratedly masculine as to call into question the sexuality of the man involved. Thus a man driving a minivan wouldn't be brokeback, but a man driving a Hummer would be. The speaker was a New York-raised late-30s heterosexual man, who hadn't seen the film."

With increasing globalization, popular culture influences are seeping in from other countries. Shotacon (also Shota, and commonly misspelled Shouta) is a Japanese and anime term for a sexual situation where an adult is attracted to an underage boy. Shota typically refers to male characters under thirteen years of age. In practice, though, this definition has expanded to include any young male characters who are considered child-like or cute.

Related to popular culture influences are borrowings from products and brand names. Examples are fruit loops (a variation on ”fruit” suggesting mental instability) and Dairy Queen (formerly a gay milkman or farmer; never common). An old term for bisexual, gillette, stems from a safety razor that cuts on both sides. When used in print, such allusions have sometimes provoked legal action for copyright infringement. Here they are merely reported from oral usage. When some years ago, it was proposed to start an annual event called the Gay Olympics the organizers had to change the name to the Gay Games. According to an act of Congress the term Olympics is the exclusive property of the International Olympic Committee, which declined to authorize the use.


Although homolexis words and meanings tend to be neglected, even now, in standard dictionaries, there is now a sufficiency of special glossaries covering them. In addition to printed repertoires, the Internet offers of growing body of such listings. A number of pitfalls must be avoided. First, in some instances these listings (especially the more extensive ones, such as Bruce Rodgers) tend to incorporate a certain number of “stunt” items, nonce words and expressions invented ad hoc by particular informants and rarely enjoying any but the most limited circulation. To some extent, this problem can be avoided by checking in other lists. If a word occurs in two such lists it is more likely to be current than an item that appears in one. This is especially true if the lists are separated in time, suggesting that the lexical item has achieved longevity. However, some lists cannibalize others, so that a stunt word may achieve a spurious vitality. For current lists, cross-checking with native speakers is helpful, but not conclusive, as few know all of the relevant terms. The only remedy is awareness of the problem, and application of common sense.

Moreover, the field is littered with misleading information about the origin of words. This is particularly true of words that shift meaning. Some amateur students, detecting an earlier, perhaps related meaning of the word, are quick to ascribe the current meaning at a time when it had not yet developed. Gay and faggot are cases in point.

As far as possible, regional limitations must be recognized. A term widely understood in Mexico, for example, may not circulate in the Iberian Peninsula, or may have a different meaning. Most Americans are familiar in a general way with British usage (and vice versa), and many terms have crossed the Atlantic. However terms common in, say, Australian and South African English may not be recognized elsewhere.

Throughout this book the items adduced are illustrative and not exhaustive. For various reasons words and expressions known to the author have been omitted in the interest of providing a clear set of narratives. Some will miss favorites, perhaps even significant ones. Nonetheless, the various sections of the book offer conceptual maps in which, it is hoped, any term new to the discussion will nonetheless find a place. Readers are invited to perform this experiment for themselves.


It is generally easier to establish the dates of the first appearance of learned words than slang ones. In most instances an inventor can be found for learned words. In some cases there is a dispute, as with homophobia, which some ascribe to K.T. Smith in 1971, while others accept George Weinberg’s claim to have been the first to introduce it (orally), using it in print in 1972. The word is a shortened form of homoerotophobia, invented by Wainwright Churchill some years before.

Another example is the word homosexual itself. Introduced in German in 1869, it did not make its way into English until some twenty years later. There is thus the matter of the reception of terms. Some words begin rather obscurely, catching on only later. What is the effective date of their introduction?

Matters are more difficult with slang words. In almost every case they can be assumed to be earlier than the first attestation in print. Yet one should not adopt speculative theories about how much earlier, as is seen for example in assertions that cannot be proved about the nineteenth-century acceptance of the word gay to mean a homosexual man. That meaning is found in print only in 1933, so one should be wary of pushing the meaning back too much before that.

Since this work is concerned more with the links between words, and between words and concepts, it does not deal extensively with the matter of dating their origins. For that, one may consult the Oxford English Dictionary (especially in its latest revisions) and J. E. Lighter’s Dictionary (which follows similar citational principles for American slang).

Many slang users are concerned with being “with it.” Deployment of the latest terms shows that one is cool, and not some old fogy. For this reason slang terms have short shelf life. They tend first to fade and then to go effectively out of use altogether. For this reason older persons may vividly recall a term that younger people do not recognize at all.

An additional dynamic applies to words connected with bodily functions. As these activities are widely regarded as private and even shameful, they show a rapid turnover rate. An expression that was once regarded as respectable because it drew a veil of euphemism over the behavior so designated eventually becomes all too clear in its import. Consider the fate of the Victorian expression “water closet.” At first this seemed a viable euphemism for a room in which bodily wastes are eliminated. As time wore on, however, the masking function of the term diminished, and the word came to be too closely linked with the prime activity of these chambers. So the abbreviation WC was devised. But that was not sufficient, and a number of replacements emerged, including toilet, lounge, and john. There are also cutesy expressions, such as “little girls’/boys’ room” and those ultimate absurdities “men’s room” and “women’s room”--as if men and women were not to be found anywhere else. (When the facility is a detached structure, working-class people have been known to call it the “shit house,” but such street terms are generally considered to lie beyond the pale of Standard English.)

In the perception of many the prime site of sexual activities is the same, or nearly the same, as the organs of elimination, so that sex shares the ambivalence connected with that function. There is another matter—privacy. During Hellenistic times, it seems that people could masturbate and even copulate in public. In Victorian England women could urinate beneath their copious skirts while strolling in public places. By contrast, our society restricts such activities to the private sphere. Finally, sex education has generally been ambivalent. Either young people learn about the “facts of life” in smutty gossip from their peers, or they are presented with high-minded and censored accounts from their parents or from authority figures. All this serves to wrap sex in an atmosphere of mystery (desirable) and taboo (which is not).

The emergence and modification of the homolexemes is naturally of great interest. But what about when words of this class begin to fade, become rare, and eventually die? For the reasons given above, sexual language is subject to a relatively rapid pattern of retirement and replacement. In addition slang relies on fashion. This is especially true with young people, but others are subject to fashion as well. Few today of any age regard “groovy” and “natch” as cool. Scholarly vocabulary is subject to renovation for a different reason, as theories that once held the field retreat in the face of new and seemingly better approaches.

For at least 150 years attitudes towards sex have been changing, and these shifts have made many words obsolete. The social setting changes. For example the decriminalization of homosexuality in Germany has made Paragraph 175 of the penal code historical. Gradually we may expect words reflecting those fateful numbers to change. Finally, there is a new factor: political correctness, which leads to language policing. There are reasons for being uneasy about this tendency. However, it also makes one think. The expression fag hag is not only misogynistic, but does a great injustice to the women it describes who are not hags and whose intention in associating with gay men are purely honorable. Likewise, dinge queen (for someone who prefers African American partners) seems gratuitously insulting.

To some extent the tendency of words to fade and finally retreat from the field is countered by the detoxification trend, whereby words like queer and dyke are recovered. So far, however, this trend is not general, and many abusive words have not had their “renaissance.” A good thing, too.


When the vocabulary of one language is less developed than another with which it is in contact, one finds the migration of words from the richer language to the less evolved one. In the field discussed in this book the greatest interlingual source of borrowing has been the classical languages, Greek and Latin. However, English has borrowed extensively from French; now French is returning the compliment. In the technique known as calque, a native word or words is reinterpreted in the light of a meaning common in the donor language, e.g. armario. A classic example of double borrowing is French gai becoming English gay becoming French gay.

Most borrowings in Western languages are from other Western languages. Today, though, the homolexicon may be undergoing an influx from Japanese, thanks to the popularity of manga and anime.

Semantic shift (change of meaning) is particularly important in the field covered by this book. Such recycling of words has partly to do with economy. It is easier to adapt an existing word, equipping it with a new meaning, than to coin a new term. Recycling also has the advantage of concealment. When first introduced, a recycled term may be used freely without outsiders catching on. For most people water sports are surfing, waterskiing and the like. For some gay men, however, the term refers to urolagnia, erotic play involving urine. There may be a certain mischievous delight in flaunting the expression in front of “rubes” who haven’t a clue as to what is really being discussed.

Slang and argot tend to be economical, making use of the device of polysemy, the assignment of multiple meanings to a single word. Adding a new meaning to an existing word is easier than inventing something out of whole cloth, or importing it from abroad. Foreign imports are, of course characteristic of the intelligentsia, whose members often travel and wish to advertise their cosmopolitanism.

[Go on to Concluding section.]


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