Friday, February 16, 2007

Migration of gay lingo

Fifty years ago the argot used by homosexuals was pretty much a "secret language." As I well recall, those of us in the know could even use the word "gay" without outsiders catching on. If by chance they did suspect, one could always cover oneself by simply saying that they misunderstood. A "gay person" was light-hearted and fun-loving--that was all there was to it.

To outsiders "our" language was a sealed book. And there were good reasons for this. Our distinctive words and phrases made up an ensemble that was similar to thieves cant. An unpleasant comparison? Indeed. But remember that until 1961 (when Illinois decriminalized) homosexual conduct was illegal in every American state.

Decriminalization was important. Much less significant, but still noteworthy to language mavens is the seepage that is occurring as words and expressions formerly restricted to gay people--and to the "sexual community" in the broader sense--are beginning to make their way into the general language.

From "closet Republican" to "closet comic-books fancier," there is no need to catalogue all the borrowings of the adjectival use of the word closet. These are so numerous that perhaps a different word is needed for that little architectural space itself.

Today, on college campuses it is quite common to hear heterosexual students speak of hooking up, meaning a sexual relationship that is more than a one-night stand, but lacks any longterm emotional commitment. This expression is purloined from the sexual subculture of American prisons, where a "jock" (the dominant partner) hooks up with a "punk" (his surrogate, or so the jocks believe, for a wife. Since both partners continue to regard themselves as straight, the relationship is in principle without emotional commitment. Or so the prison ethos decrees. I have heard that some of these hook-ups do have a loving component, but this must be kept a secret, lest the participants lose face.

Another interesting example is money quote. This is an excerpt from a longer text that is judged to make the most telling point. The expression stems from "money shot," the scene in a porno flic in which the stud ejaculates outside the orifice of his partner, so that viewers can be certain that he actually has come.

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