Basic principles of homolexical research
Sexual terms are inherently fascinating. Sex is one of humanity’s most intense, even seering experiences, and the ways of discussing this behavior range from outright crudity through clinical detachment to a decorum sometimes marked by timidity and reticence.
This study addresses the character and historical development of the body of words used for homosexuality—-the homolexis or homolexicon—-primarily in English, but also (by way of comparison) with four other major Western European languages: French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Given the limitations of my own knowledge it has not been feasible to treat the languages with uniform depth. For this reason the English tongue will remain the base.
The homolexicon of five languages has benefited from a number of valuable studies. To the best of my knowledge, though, a broader, comparative approach--such as the one I favor--has not been previously attempted.
Readers should not be surprised to find that some favorite term is lacking, for the coverage is illustrative rather than exhaustive. For example, one scholar has collected more than 150 different instances of expressions employing “queen” as the second element (drag queen, opera queen, etc.). Only a few of these have been noticed here. The purpose is to determine the principles governing the appearance, survival, and function of words. To achieve this goal a representative sample suffices.
Moreover, even dictionaries that attempt to be comprehensive must ultimately fail in the realm of sexual terminology, because the vocabulary continues to grow and change. That is particularly true for homosexual behavior and culture. Equipped with various survival skills, gay people tend to be creative with language. This knack engenders a continuing stream of ad hoc expressions. A few of these survive; most do not. Moreover, because of long-standing prejudice and discrimination, the host society has generated a disconcertingly large body of terms of disparagement.
These words, the homolexemes, have invited at least four valid approaches.
1) In this approach the scholar assembles a copious repertoire, offering relevant citations. One may start with three major reference works, which offer much useful material. Two monumental slang dictionaries are exemplary. One is a classic of a hundred years ago, John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley, Slang and Its Analogues: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society . . . (7 vols., London and Edinburgh, 1890-1907). Still in progress is J. E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (New York, 1994- ), an admirable work. For individual words one should consult the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the latest revisions. These three works provide much useful data. We are not so lucky with the domain of the homolexis. Bruce Rodgers, The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (San Francisco, 1972), offers more than 6,000 brief entries, many nonce items that never enjoyed any general currency. Paul Baker, Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (London and New York, 2002), has a British emphasis. In two model studies, Claude Courouve combines citations with astute analysis. His monograph on French male terms was path-finding twenty years ago, and he has now (2006) privately published an enlarged edition with many more citations, entitled Dictionnaire historique de l’homosexualité masculine. This book is now the most comprehensive and reliable source for such terms in any language. Jody Skinner, Bezeichnungen für das Homosexuelle im Deutschen (2 vols., Essen,1999) offers an extensive roster emphasizing recent German usage. To be sure, there are a number of alphabetical lists of a popular sort, including Internet sites, which are subjective and incomplete. This is a game in which any number can play, with results of varying value.
2) One may view the words as monads or vectors distilling significant themes illustrating the history of ideas about same-sex love. This approach calls for selectivity. Giovanni Dall’Orto’s “Le Parole per dirlo” (originally published in the periodical Sodoma in 1986 and now available at www.giovannidallorto.com/cultura/checcabolario) focuses on eleven key Italian words, covering them thoroughly (now expanded in an Internet version). Where the first method, described in the above paragraph, is extensive, this one is intensive.
3) One may adopt the sociolinguistic approach, as seen in the work of the Lavender Linguists (LL) group. This method, to be discussed further below, tends to disregard individual lexical items in favor of an empirical study of interlocutory situations. LL pays attention to overtones and social contexts, instead of individual words. Thus the amount of gay content is variable and sometimes elusive.
4) Finally, there is the method adopted in this book, which posits that words and word clusters tend to ramify through networks and linkages of various kinds. These are termed tropes. It must be conceded that in the aggregate these patterns form a very imperfect system—if that term can even be used. At best we encounter a series of “fuzzy sets.” Yet they are indeed sets, and not just an agglomeration of unrelated, atomic entities. There is no “gay language,” even in the somewhat limited sense of argots and cants. But words tend to consort together--almost promiscuously, one might say--generating other words. And sometimes the lexical entities migrate from one natural language to another. Hence the five-language feature.
To say it once more, the range of terms covered in this book is selective, not exhaustive. Pride of place goes to expressions that consort with others. The purpose of the three sections of this book is to supply a map or diagram, a framework for the insertion of additional material, if desired.
It is sometimes hard to distinguish fully between terms that have general currency and those that are the happy inspiration of a single person. The latter are called nonce terms. Most terms, though, do in fact start out with the invention of a single person. Then they spread to a small circle and, if fortune permits, to broader segments of society. This book favors terms with broader currency, but inevitably some nonce terms have been included.
Even a preliminary acquaintance with the words of the homolexicon reveals that many are terms of disparagement. For almost 2000 years Western society has sought to repress same-sex behavior. This history could not fail to exact a toll. Most of these words have had to travel down a long corridor of malice, oppression, and willful misunderstanding. Even apart from the theological and legal restraints, gay people are likely to be perceived, even now, as different. This perception recalls the way other “others” have been represented in our society, including women and ethnic minorities. Indeed, some terms combine misogyny with homophobia. Racism in not absent. And it is not surprising that some gay and lesbian people have internalized the disparaging attitudes connected with these words.
Why tell the story then? In part it a cautionary tale, and reminder of how far we have come. Broadly speaking, the history of human knowledge is one of progress from error and superstition to truth and enlightenment. Such hopeful elements are also found in these pages. But mainly we tell the story because it is there.
As noted above, this is not a study in gay sociolinguistics. Lavender Linguistics (LL) studies mainly the usage of gays and lesbians themselves. Terms and ways of thought generated by the host society are only of interest insofar as they enter into the realm of social interaction among gay men and lesbians themselves. Nuances of phrasing, intonation, and gesture are of major concern. Sometimes described as gayspeak, LL has a strong interest in the ephemera of popular culture (music, movies, television), neglecting longitudinal and cross-cultural aspects. One also notes the present-mindedness of LL—which is mainly restricted to current English-language, indeed American usage.
Since I published Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality in 1985, there has been a groundswell of interest in the field. Generally speaking, there has been a shift away from the lexical studies of same-sex terms in the direction of a study of applied social interaction. It seems that William Leap and others involved in the Lavender Linguistic trend believe that there is such a thing as a gay and lesbian language, sometimes known as “gayspeak.” Yet as Don Kulick has aptly observed in a critical review of the matter, this entity is a phantom (“Gay and Lesbian Language,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 29, 243-85). Not only is there no generally accepted gay/lesbian language (for many do not recognize its supposed gay elements), the argument is circular—what gays speak is gay language and that ipso facto points to a gay person. No doubt there are continuities of intonation, phraseology, and conversational strategies that are frequently found among gay and lesbian persons. But as Kulick argues, they are probably no different that the devices of solidarity that inform the speech of, say, firefighters, real-estate agents, and (needless to say) college professors. In short to speak of a gay language is an exaggeration, for there is no such entity, only a set of usages, words, turns of phrase, and inflections preferred by significant sectors of the overall set of the gay/lesbian population.
Sexual language is but an enclave, or set of enclaves within the vast territory of natural languages. From these enclaves alone, it would never be possible to reconstruct the nature of the languages in which they reside. However, the language sets up parameters in which these paralanguages flourish. To put it another way, the host language is autonomous, the paralanguages dependent.
Recent trends aside, the need to study the vocabulary of same-sex behavior and desire abides. To define gay people the host society has deployed an extensive repertoire of words, many of them distinctly unflattering. Other terms have come forward from gay people themselves. There is no absolute separation between the two source streams. Sometimes, usually reluctantly, the host society has adopted terms preferred by homosexual persons themselves, such as (formerly) “Greek love” and the word gay itself. Conversely, gay people have, for better or worse, taken over the disparaging terms that have been hurled at them. In the past this takeover has been accompanied by a certain complicity in the negativity resident in them. This acquiescence may be regarded as a form of internalized homophobia. Recently, as with queer, some gay theoreticians have maintained that these terms can be detoxified and reclaimed. The very act of doing so is daring and transgressional, reflecting the confidence and power of the proud gay and lesbian person—or so they hold. There are several views on this matter, and these will be discussed below under the category of detoxification
The study of terms developed to denote this major human group goes back at least as far as Magnus Hirschfeld’s magnum opus of 1914, Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes. In my 1985 monograph, I cited a number of relevant dictionaries and studies in several languages. There are now more of these, facilitating comparative linguistic study. Since many ideas about homosexuality arose outside the English-speaking world, and other countries still harbor differences in practice and conceptualization, it is important to perform this task in a non-ethnocentric manner. Indeed, ordinary gay and lesbian travelers note similarities and differences in the languages of the countries they visit. The curiosity fostered by such experiences is a valuable spur to knowledge.
While much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. For many, even today, sexual language is an unwelcome guest. Many would prefer that we ignore the street language of “cocks” and “boobs” and so forth. During Victorian times some stipulated that even so-called scientific terms, such as homosexual and algolagnia (erotic enjoyment of pain) be tabooed. The less we know about such subjects the better. Regrettable, this ostrich notion lingers in some quarters even today.
For reasons of space this work is not much concerned with etymologies as such. For sexual terms, however, it is often possible to trace the current usage to a recent sense that is well documented. For example, in eighteenth-century slang queer meant “financially dubious; counterfeit.” Hence the expression “queer as a three-dollar bill.”
One tendency should be noted, and that is the temptation experienced by gays and lesbians to embrace folk etymologies—urban legends in effect—to explain key terms. A good example is the claim, still in wide circulation, that the word faggot derives from a vicious medieval custom of using bound homosexuals as kindling in witch burnings. As Warren Johansson has shown this derivation is a mistake. The immediate predecessor of faggot is a disparaging term for a woman.
Some lesbian scholars have sought to derive dyke from Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, or from Queen Boudicca, who led a revolt against Roman rule in Britain. Neither is correct. The most likely derivation of the word dyke is from a style of fancy dress.
Some will regret the general absence of source citations. To the extent that these are known, they are cited in the works of Courouve, Dall’Orto, Skinner and others, as noted above. In other instances, the reader must simply take my word for it (so to speak). In my youth I heard the expression “meat for days” so often as to know from personal experience that it was not a rare or nonce expression.
ARGOT, SLANG, STANDARD LANGUAGE
Argot (or cant) is a body of words devised to serve as a confidential means of communication among a particular group. When uttered, these words are opaque to outsiders, but perfectly clear to the in-group. An example is the word gay, which for most Americans prior to the 1960s simply meant “joyous; carefree; fun-loving.” For homosexuals, for whom it had quite a different meaning gay could be used in mixed company without giving anything away. In addition to concealment, such words served to promote solidarity by identifying the speaker as a member of the group.
Clearly then, argot is created by those who have something to conceal. That means all sorts of marginal groups, including criminals, hoboes, certain tradespeople, and homosexuals. The locus classicus is eighteenth-century thieves’ cant in England. For example, two ruffians might be talking about “biting the ken.” Since “ken” means house, they are discussing a robbery. The following is an example from today’s gay-male world. A straight outsider might overhear one man say to another: “Is your partner well-endowed.” The outsider would probably think that they were discussing a stock portfolio. In reality they were talking about penis size. These usages may be termed Janus-words, because they present one side to outsiders, another to those in the know. Recourse to such expressions forms part of a larger pattern of dissimulation, essential to all groups that have been marginalized.
Such phenomena occur among respectable groups as well. In fact they are generally characteristic of secret societies. That the Freemasons boast an extensive repertoire of distinctive gestures, known only to themselves, is generally recognized. They also make use of ordinary words in special ways. For example, a Brother may speak of “traveling to the East from the West”—or simply “traveling”—alluding to the Masonic idea of seeking light from the sun. Such utterances serve as screening and signaling devices. If the listener is not a member of the organization, there will be no response. If he is, he will probably pronounce other “special” words in confirmation of the fact. Outsiders who happen to be present will remain oblivious to the real nature of the conversation.
Argot of this type is the property of a particular group. By contrast, some argot develops into a vast empire, circulating among a wide range of marginal groups. The most striking example is Caló, a Spanish argot comprising thousands of words. Over the centuries some Caló expressions have seeped into the general language. Linguistic purists decry these intrusions, some even denying that the argot exists. Another example is the Gaunersprache of the German-language sphere. Originally the jargon of the criminal underclass, Gaunersprache has bequeathed a number of words to standard German. The original context of French argot, as seen for example in the jargon poems of François Villon, was of this type. Today that argot has to all intents and purposes merged with the standard language. By way of compensation, French has acquired an extensive new argot called Verlan. More restricted in range is Cockney rhyming slang, which has contributed a few expressions to our subject. (The special case of Polari will be discussed below.)
As we have seen, secrecy is hard to maintain, and eventually much argot migrates into everyday speech. Then it becomes slang, discounted by linguistic purists but generally understood, even by those who decline to use it. In addition to the influx from argot, there is much slang that arises simply as slang. Examples are the mid-fifties terms platter (a phonograph record) and headshrinker (a psychiatrist).
The headshrinker example brings us to another topic. A good deal of the slang that we treat in this book has been devised for purposes of disparagement. These items reflect a pervasive homophobia. This prejudice derives from the marginalization of same-sex conduct that, supported by the instruments of law and medicine, has blighted Western society for almost two millennia. At last we gradually shedding this incubus, but it will be found to have left a permanent impress on language. One must hope, and reasonably so, that the words of hostility will be defanged, as it were, their negativity now being merely harmless. Some believe that we have reached this stage with queer, but I am not so sure.
Linguists, then, regard argot and slang as aspects of language. They are not full-fledged languages themselves, but rather bodies of material embedded in the host language. When we employ expressions such as gayspeak and homolexis, we must bear in mind this dependent status within the infinitely vaster realm of language itself.
Some linguists write of registers, different levels of speech. Some have the capacity to switch between two registers with ease. This skill is called diglossia.
While the phenomenon of dissimulation through language is generally addressed in its oral manifestations, it may be noted that there are also high-culture analogues. During tsarist times in Russia writers of social commentary under strict censorship had recourse to a device called Aesopic language--a variety of linguistic tricks, allusions, and distortions comprehensible to an attuned reader but baffling to censors. An early example is the novel “We” (1920) by Evgeny Zamyatin. In this science-fiction fable set in the twenty-sixth century A.D., the author refers to the dictator as “the Benefactor.” Even so, his novel was banned. Later writers could refer to Stalin as the Benefactor—if they dared.
The general public relegates argot and slang to the lower registers of language. The higher registers of language have also made a major contribution. These terms derive from the sophisticated realms of theology (sodomy, against nature), medicine and psychiatry (inversion, latent homosexuality), and law (sodomy again). More recently sociologists and other social scientists have supplied some terms. Finally, the “respectable” vocabulary of Standard English (and the other tongues examined in this book) has recently been enlarged by gays themselves (homophobia and biphobia).
As a rule dictionaries of the homolexis do not combine the high registers with the low ones. Most in fact concentrate on argot and slang, excluding standard language. The boundary between high and low is not an absolute one, however. Many terms cross over, sometimes with changes. An eighteenth-century example is morphadite, a garbled rendering of hermaphrodite. More recent is homo, a slang clipping of homosexual, which is standard English. These are instances of “high” vocabulary migrating into the popular sphere. The opposite process has occurred with gay meaning “homosexual.” Once merely slang, it is now widely accepted by journalists, civil-rights workers, and others.
Nor is possible strictly to separate words of disparagement (a disconcertingly large contingent) from those that are neutral or favorable. Some words, such as deviation, which were intended to be neutral have acquired a tinge of pejoration. Other terms, which were at one time derogatory, have been recycled by gays themselves.
This section concludes with a brief discussion of British Polari, which has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Consisting of some 500 words, it is a mixture of Lingua Franca, Italian, Romany, backslang, rhyming slang and thieves cant. In its original form, which probably goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, it was used in fishmarkets, the theater, the merchant navy, and by circus people and other popular entertainers. Through the London theater there was an interchange with the gay subculture. The notion that it is a specifically gay phenomenon is due to its exploitation in a popular BBC radio show, “Round the Horne” that ran from 1964 to 1969. The two camp characters Julian and Sandy sprinkled their repartee with doses of Polari. As these characters were clearly gay the notion spread that it was a gay language. With changing social conditions, Polari began to die out. Its limited revival at the end of the twentieth century is more a curiosity than a linguistic phenomenon.
LEVELS OF STYLE
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.”
WORDS AND BEHAVIOR
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.
INFLUENCE OF POPULAR CULTURE
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.
APPEARANCE AND SUPERANNUATION OF WORDS
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.
INTERLINGUAL BORROWING AND INTERNAL SHIFT OF MEANING
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.
MECHANISMS OF WORD FORMATION
The concluding main section examines the major linguistic mechanisms of word formation--that is to say, those that are relevant to this study.
1. Learned binary compounds tend to be assembled from Greek and Latin roots (stratosphere, automobile), though the resulting words do not occur in the classical forms of those language. These compounds are neo-Greek, neo-Latin, or a mixture of the two. Technically there are two types: 1) the first element modifies second (the procedure linguists term tatpurusha, after a classic Sanskrit analysis: homosexual, ephebophile, urolagnia); 2) the two are linguistically equal (sadomasochism). Once the term achieves currency, the first part tends to become detachable, yielding new binary compounds: homophobia, homocons, bi-curious. These forms, which behave like prefixes, rely on an antecedent clipping (see below).
2. Contagious words and formative elements may come into play. For example, Spanish marica, milksop, engenders maricón, then mariposa, mariflor and so forth. In this instance the first two syllables form a core, attracting other words based on identity of sound. In this way, even “innocent” words, like marinero, sailor, become infected. In French pédé yields pédale (a pedal, as on a bicycle), as well as pédoque.
More informal links exist. Etymologically, there is no connection between fag and “fagged out.” Still, many associate the first world with some sort of failure of energy or nerve. This example illustrates the principle of connotation, as distinct from denotation.
Some variations of this kind have a humorous or whimsical air. In a traditional witticism, thespian is substituted for lesbian, especially if the person is a performer or dramatic type (typically with a special intonation or with raised eyebrows). For men in quest of a sexual partner Mr. Right is amended to Mr. Right Now.
3. Suffixes and prefixes are important. The most common suffixes of agency are –ite and –ist. Sodomita goes back the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The ending of hermaphrodite is not a suffix, but stems from the goddess Aphrodite. Modern coinages are calamite and transvestite. In recent times the –ist suffix has been particularly productive. Note sadist, Sapphist, activist, exhibitionist, sexist, sexologist, and rapist. As with the pair racist/racism and many others, these tend to go with suffixes in –ism, characterizing the condition: sadism, Sapphism, activism, exhibitionism, sexism (but not sexologism or rapism). The writer Gore Vidal has sought to promote the term homosexualist, someone who is (in his judgment) excessively preoccupied with his or her gay identity--a “professional homosexual” in short. This neologism has not met general acceptance. However, gay radicals have succeeded in giving some currency to heterosexism, undue preference for ideas and behavioral patterns associated with heterosexuality (a complex sometimes termed heteronormativity). Linguistically, the word heterosexism is a modification of sexism.
A Latin suffix is –ia, generally shortened to –y in English (sodomia/sodomy, venery). A few, such as algolagnia and urolagnia, keep the Latin ending. Note buggery which, however, stems from French bougrerie.
The suffix –ette, which combines feminization with diminution, is nowadays avoided as tending to belittle women (majorette, usherette). It has not had much homosexual usage, but note the Cockettes, a seventies drag musical group. In some Romance languages it is easy to change the masculine ending –o into an -a (as zapatero, a shoemaker, becomes zapatera) or simply to change the article into the feminine form: la (e. g., la general). In English the word queen has virtually become a suffix—drag queen, opera queen, rice queen, etc.
The expressive prefix shm- derives from shmuck, a Yiddish word for penis. Despite this origin, most examples do not seem to be sexual, though Oedipus-shmoedipus comes close. As this example shows, the prefix is typically employed in reduplication.
Compared to suffixes, prefixes are much less common in gay usage. Someone who shows no erotic response is asexual (with the privative prefix a-). A trannie contemplating a sex change is termed a pre-op; once the surgery is completed, one is a post-op. Nowadays there are postmodern gays, or PoMo homos (a somewhat rarified academic usage). In compounds the word cock functions as a prefix (cock cheese, cocksucker, cockteaser).
4. Patterned forms occur when new terms are modeled on older expressions. The original form provides a kind of blueprint for new ones. Thus racism has engendered sexism and ageism. Call girl easily leant itself to imitation in call boy. Black power suggested gay power. The word drag queen is an old standby. Recently, it has given rise to its complement, drag king, usually a "kick-ass" woman entertainer or exhibitionist of some sort who has adopted male dress and mannerisms.
In the clinical sense psychiatrists have identified a number of phobias, from acrophobia to zoophobia. These conditions evince an actual fear or flight from specific situations or agents. Today the -phobia suffix is proliferating outside its original bounds, identifying conditions that are not phobias according to a strict definition of the term, e.g. decidophobia and Islamophobia, alongside homophobia and biphobia. The opposite state ends in -phile (pedophile, homophile, gerontophile). Alcoholic has engendered workaholic and chocoholic (replacing the older dinge queen), rightly regarded as racist. Attacks on South Asian ethnic groups in England produced the expression “Paki bashing,” which in turn yielded gay bashing (found in the US also). This category overlaps with the previous one, as is evident in the forms combining with queen.
5. As in other spheres of language, diminutives may signal affection or
disparagement, sometimes both. Note trannie, gunsel, faygele (with the Yiddish diminutive suffix –le). When applied to an adult, gay boy suggests immaturity.
6. Rhyming pairs are catchy, so that the device helps one to remember the expression. This practice is well-attested in the general vocabulary: mumbo jumbo, hanky panky, pussy wussy (yielding wuss). Starting in the mid-twentieth century, the device became prominent in journalistic usage (e.g. boob tube, brain drain, nitty-gritty, and the recent shock jock). These pairs are not exclusive to English. Note French pèle-mèle and pique-nique (borrowed into English as picnic in 1826), and Latin nolens volens (= willy nilly).
Sexual examples in English include gang bang, knob-job, no-tell hotel, teeny weeny (man with a small penis), troll patrol, fag hag, boy toy (US) or toy boy (UK), and tag fag (UK; one who favors designer clothing). For some years after Stonewall a gay periodical appeared in Boston known as Fag Rag. Kosher nosher (a gay man who prefers Jewish partners) does not quite rhyme, but is close. Sometimes the rhyming constituents are separated by another word, as in beat the meat, gay for pay, girth and mirth, chicks with dicks, dykes on bikes. A special aspect is hidden rhymes, as found in Cockney slang; note ginger beer (“queer” understood), which is sometimes simply ginger, as well as iron hoof (poof). The rarer device of assonance occurs where there is a similarity of sound without a full rhyme, e.g. butt fuck and motherfucker (in both of which the short ‘u’ sound recurs).
7. Alliteration also serves as a mnemonic, as seen in such common expressions as Nervous Nelly, pencil pusher. Note the following: gay guy, bum boy, pink pound (UK), pink pistols (a gay self-defense group). The expression gay as a goose probably survives mainly because of its alliteration. Still, there may be something to the avian association, for the word gunsel stems from German/Yiddish “little goose.” Zoologists have recently documented same-sex behavior among geese.
8. Onomatopoeia occurs when a word imitates a natural sound. Examples are buzz, hiss, purr, kerplunk, and bang-bang. Surprisingly this principle does not seem to be very productive in the sexual realm. Banging is sometimes used for sexual congress. Another example is jizz for semen. British poof (with its variant poofter) may have originated as a kind of onomatopoeia, though this is disputed.
9. Economy of effort is a frequent motivator in linguistic change. Clipping or truncation is generally favored because of the economy factor. In clippings linguists distinguish between apheresis and apocape. Apheresis occurs when a portion of the beginning of a word is deleted, as seen in cute for acute and bus for omnibus. In apocape it is the latter part that disappears: telly for television, gym for gymnasium. In some cases the original has been completely forgotten, as with cinema (which derives from cinematograph). Examples in our sphere include homo, hetero, bi, fag, lez, trans, sod, and pedo (for pedophile). Once these truncated forms have become established, they may take on an independent life, recombining and giving rise to new binary forms: homophobia, biphobia, homolexis. This type of clipping is less common in other languages, but German has Homo, French pédé, Italian effe (effeminato) and omo; Spanish mari (from marica) and lesbi (lesbiana). Not infrequently the clipping adds a note of disparagement, as in the ordinary use of homo, or the political expression women’s lib. The clipping of faggot to fag has facilitated associations (not original) with the idea of being “fagged out”; with fag, a younger boy who serves as a menial in an English public school; and fag, British slang for a cigarette. Writers of newspaper headlines find such clippings handy (hence the word perv, spotted in a tabloid headline in New York City in August 2004). This is one aspect of a general explanation of the popularity of clipping: economy. It is takes less effort to enounce a short word than a long one. However, in the case of homolexemes there may be an additional motivation, not a pleasant one. In everyday English taboo words applying to sexual and excretory functions are usually monosyllables. “Perv” fits this pattern better than pervert, just as fag has a greater charge than faggot. Sometimes clipping combines with a diminutive, as in trannie.
10. Now fashionable in English is a kind of dual clipping and fusion, producing blends. Some, such as motel (1925), have long been in use and are accepted as regular words. Others, such as Yinglish (1951; Yiddish borrowings in English, or an anglicized version of Yiddish) are less common. The practice was known in the nineteenth century, when such forms were termed portmanteau words. Yet, as the American linguist Margaret M. Bryant noted, these forms became increasingly common in the 1970s. The practice is not frequent in other European languages (but note franglais)
Blends may comprise several parts of speech: adjective + noun (gaydar, metrosexual); noun + noun (motel, dykon).
Typically a short first element partly devours its partner, as in chunnel, the tunnel linking Britain and France. Homolexis examples are gayby (as in “gayby boom,” the fashion among lesbian and gay-male couples to adopt infants or have them through artificial insemination), gayborhood, Gaybonics (alluding to Ebonics, derived from ebony). Pansydena (Pasadena, CA) is rare
11. Increasingly important are abbreviations and acronyms. Strictly speaking, in an abbreviation the letters are pronounced individually (FBI, ERA). In acronyms the whole is pronounced as one word (NATO, FEMA). The spread of such forms reflects several factors, including the growth of government bureaucracies, need for economy, and the practice of newspaper headline writers, who need to conserve space. Advertisements also become cheaper if fewer letters are used. Euphemism may play a role, as in Snafu, “situation normal, all fucked up” (ca. 1941). There is also a kind of cutesy effect, as in BMOC, “big man on campus.”
Historically government bureaucracy led the way: BBC and RAF are well-known, even outside of Britain. In retrospect the 1920s and 1930s constituted the key transitional era. The state takeover of industry in the Soviet Union engendered many acronyms, some of which (e.g. NKVD and KGB) are known elsewhere. The New Deal in America generated its own alphabet soup. Even during the period, it was difficult to distinguish PWA from WPA. Yet the League of Nations was never referred to as the LoN or LN; now the abbreviation UN (United Nations, the successor organization) is universally recognized. In US most would readily recognize FBI, CIA, NBC, and CNN. The spread of new scientific and pharmaceutical discoveries has popularized such terms as DNA and LSD.
A vast number of abbreviations, sometimes termed hieroglyphics, have emerged from computers and their programming, most of these known only to specialists. Exceptions are PC (personal computer) and URL (uniform resource locator—essentially an Internet address). Not dissimilar are terms for devices recording sound and images: CD, VCR, and DVD. Some e-mail users have adopted cutesy abbreviations, as BTW (by the way), IMHO (in my humble opinion) and c u (“see you,” a closer). And of course there are the ubiquitous emoticons, commonly known as “smilies.”
We turn now to some sexual instances of this proliferating phenomenon. The abbreviation STD (sexually transmitted disease) has essentially replaced the older “venereal disease.” GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) was fortunately transitory, yielding to AIDS and HIV. Not strictly an acronym, 69 is nonetheless a graphic shortening recognizable the world over.. As NATO became OTAN in French (according to order of the words abbreviated), so AIDS became SIDA (as it did also in Spanish). The French term for domestic partnerships is PACS (Pacte Civile de Solidarité).
Some abbreviations entered ordinary speech a while back. Dating to the twenties in Britain are TBH (to be had) and NTBH (not to be had).
Sex ads, where space is at a premium, have generated many acronyms and abbreviations. Many of these “hieroglyphs” have migrated to Internet solicitations and messages, picking up significant additions along the way. The following selective list does not seek to discriminate between print and electronic media: B&D (bondage and discipline); S/M (sadomasochism); Ms (masochists—-ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so); w/e; w/end (well endowed, well hung); Gr act (Greek active, i.e. anal insertor); Gr pas (Greek passive, i.e. anal receptor); Fr act (French active, i.e. oral insertor); Fr pas (French passive, i.e. oral receptor); CP (corporal punishment); C/B/T/T (cock, ball and tit torture); W/S (water sports, i.e. urinating, etc.); J/O (jack off, i.e. masturbation); FF (fist fucking); Lv's (Levi's, including denim); fone frk (phone freak, i.e. dirty talk etc.); gdlk (good looking, possibly godlike); LIAHO (Let It All Hang Out); HWP (height, weight, proporns); LTR (long-term relationship), ISO (in search of), HIV + contrasting with HIV - (HIV positive and HIV negative), D/D free (drugs and disease free); TS (transsexual) and TV (transvestite); str8 (straight)
New is PNP (party and play), meaning that drugs will be involved in the sexual encounter. A person free of drugs and alcohol and seeking same may style himself “clean.”
There is also a good deal of gay-movement jargon: DOB (Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization); GAA (Gay Activists Alliance), NGLTF (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Association); l/g (lesbian and gay), LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer), SSM (same-sex marriage), DADT (don’t ask, don’t tell, referring to the unfortunate policy of the DoD, the Department of Defense). Transsexuals (or those intending to be such) may use M2F (male-to-female) and F2M (female-to-male).
There are some special terms common among African-Americans who do not identify as gay or find it expedient to employ concealment. These include DL (for “on the down low,” a euphemism for engaging in, or seeking same-sex activity), and MSM (men who have sex with men). Some black gay intellectuals have adopted the self-descriptive label PoMo (postmodern) or PoMo Homo.
There are also false acronym claims. During the 1980s homophobes cynically glossed “gay” as “Got AIDS Yet?” The clothing chain The Gap is supposed to be a shortened form of “Gay and Proud.”
12. Backslang occurs when words are pronounced back to front. This is the central principle of Verlan, currently enjoying popularity in the slums of French cities, and among some “with it” types in the general French population. The Verlan word beur (from Arabe) has become almost standard French. There are relatively few gay terms, but note deup (from pédé). Polari has some back slang, e.g. Eraf, face, and riah, hair, but this practice does not seem to involve specifically gay lingo. In the US Pig Latin is somewhat similar, but for in our sphere this is probably limited to ad hoc usage: “Is she an ykday?” A similar process of back slang (vesre, from Spanish revés) occurs in Lunfardo (Argentinian slang), in Colombia, and in the Greek slang known as Podana (the reverse form of ana-poda, i.e. backwards).
13. Mincing occurs where one or more sounds are deliberately distorted, so as to make the word more acceptable in polite company. Originally this device was deployed for words otherwise judged blasphemous, as in the substitution of “darned” for damned and “gosh” for God. A more elaborate example is “What the dickens!” It was commonly believed that directly uttering the Devil’s name meant that he would appear. Eventually, the procedure extended to sexual terms, as in dork for dick, and frig or fork for fuck. This device does not seem common in the homolexis; note, however, West Hollywierd. (not common). The term morphadite (for hermaphrodite) has been documented in England as early as 1706. It probably represents an attempt by the unlearned to cope with an unfamiliar classical term, rather than a true instance of mincing.
14. Malapropisms result when a person tries to pronounce an impressive, but unfamiliar word, botching the effort by confusing it with another word, or mangling the pronunciation. One journalist wrote of a suspect who was “arraigned on a charge of statuary rape.” Another praised the service of a military officer by stating that “Admiral Rickover worked deciduously during his 54 years of naval service.” An example of mangling is a young man who spoke of being falsely accused of “granicity” (he meant grandiosity). In the sexual realm an old attestation is morphadite, noted above. Swaffunder reflects French soixante-neuf (69). Some malapropisms are deliberate, showing a humorous intent. One example is thespian, an arch substitute for lesbian. Another is cunning linguist (for cunnilinguist).
15. Supplying antonyms may lead to full-fledged binary systems. In the nineteenth century Richard von Krafft-Ebing observed that while the word Sadismus (imported from French) described the active partner in such an interaction there was no term for the person who seeks humiliation and pain. He coined Masochismus. K. M. Kertbeny’s invention of the term homosexual was not at first accompanied by heterosexual (he used normalsexual with that meaning), but it seemed called for-—and so it appeared, some years later.
In other contrasting pairs it is not easy to see which came first. French culture vs. Greek culture, top and bottom, catcher and pitcher. They may come together as a package. But once one of the contrasting pairs is invoked the other comes to mind.
The process of invention goes on and on, as the symmetry principle fosters “completion” of one term by its counterpart. Thus call girl yields call boy and drag queen, drag king. Recently, rent boy has given rise to rent girl, a lesbian prostitute (rare). Some expressions resist this process. Thus English law has produced gross indecency, but there is no corresponding “petty indecency.”
16. Synecdoche is a figure of speech that occurs when a part is substituted for the whole, or the whole for a part. The first, reduction to a single part, characterizes indelicate versions of everyday language, as “tits” for a woman and “big mouth” for someone who talks too much. Sexual examples include dick or dickhead for a stupid person (possibly someone who is obsessed with penile gratification), and hole for someone who takes it up the ass.
A related device is pseudo-speciation, which treats members of minorities as the equivalent of some nonhuman group, or something very close to this status. In times gone by it was common to refer to “the Jew” when all Jewish persons were meant. Similarly, one might refer to “the homosexual” or “the deviant,” suggesting group characteristics. Fortunately, this totalizing use of the singular is now uncommon.
17. Erasure occurs when a taboo prevents direct utterance. Historically, many have held that same-sex behavior is literally unnamable. Same-sex behavior is “the silent sin” or the crimen nefandum, as the medieval Latin has it. To the extent that it is permissible to refer to the matter at all, it should be in terms of some dismissive gesture, or perhaps utilizing some vague formula, as that way or one of those. In French one may speak of en être and comme ça. The circumlocution “ces messieurs” dates from the eighteenth century. With its so, German is the most economical.
18. Some individuals who pride themselves on creative use of language seek to introduce new words made up out of whole cloth. Generally speaking, such neologisms do not fare well. An exception is grok, meaning “to perceive or understand thoroughly; to feel empathy with, and hence to enjoy or appreciate.” Introduced by the science-fiction writer Robert L. Heinlein in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, this verb has gained favor among with-it young people and journalists. Less successful has been limerance, defined by one source as “a powerful and constantly distracting obsessive infatuation.” Dorothy Tennov proposed the term in the late 1970s because of its “fitting sound.” About the same time, in 1978, the French writer Renaud Camus invented achrien, a vaguely Greek sounding word for “gay.” Alas, the new word did not fulfill Camus’s utopian wish that it replace such existing French words as pédé, homosexual, inverti and so forth. However, it has been adopted by some student groups, such as Gage (Group Achrien des Grandes Ecoles) The word Mattachine might appear to be an invention, but the Mattachine Society, America’s first significant gay-rights group, is Harry Hay’s 1950 revival of the name of a Renaissance musical group, with change of meaning.
Labels: lexicography gay history