Sunday, 19 January 2014

Gayly encouraging kids to use naughty words

    When I was at primary school in an English village sometime at the end of the 1970s, there was a term during which the entire pupil body discovered a new universal insult.


    Not very nice, is it. Rather shaming, three decades later.
    I seem to remember it had an air of contagion about it in a way that only made sense to nine-year-olds: someone denounced as such could somehow pass it on to others by touching them. The horror at such a moment, the chorus of the uninfected as they scrambled to avoid contact, and the slightly bizarre imaginary disinfection ritual performed by the victim's friends for an imaginary contagion. Being nine years old was weird.
    Of course, our antics were a rather disturbing reflection of the Thalidomide scandal over a decade earlier, before we were born. We didn't know that, we didn't even know where the word came to our school from. One minute nobody had heard of it the next everyone was using it. It had no real meaning to us, an ephemeral throwaway word which would probably have dropped out of fashion as soon as one of the cooler kids decided that its use denoted that the speaker was somehow childish. A significant insult among children who all want to pretend that they er... aren't children.
    Fortunately for us our headmaster decided Something Must Be Done. At a school assembly he laid out in no uncertain terms the history of the word, and banned its use. Serious Trouble would rain down on the head of anyone caught saying it.
    Its public use stopped immediately. There were some denunciations of suspected flid-sayers, but that was it. We'd learned about the use of ableist slurs, and why they were a Bad Thing, m'kay.
    What followed was interesting. Though "flid" was no longer a part of public vocabulary its power in private vocabulary was increased exponentially. The whole school now knew this was a Bad Word with power to hurt, and the adults really disapproved of it.
    Nothing could have been more calculated to encourage its use among the immature and give it a new and much more exciting life. It did die away eventually, I guess as we all got just a little bit older. Perhaps a summer holiday rendered it outdated, last year's word.
    The summer of "flid" has been on my mind of late, as a parallel to something that has been in the news. The gay organisation Sonewall (I can't bring myself to include a T in the name of a trans-exclusive organisation named for a seminal event in transgender history) have been campaigning for an end to the use of the word "gay" in the sense the lexicographers record as "foolish, stupid, or unimpressive". It's a sense that's been in the news from time to time, for instance when a student got into hot water for calling a police horse gay, or when a Radio 1 DJ used it to describe a ringtone.
    It's a funny word, "gay". The older generation found it offensive forty or more years ago when its meaning shifted to the homosexual sense from one meaning "happy or carefree", now those who identify by the homosexual sense are finding it offensive that the word is moving away from them.
    As word senses go though this one ain't big and it ain't clever. Gay youngsters have a hard enough time without the extra burden of the identity they have to come to terms with being synonymous with everything negative in name. I wouldn't be happy to hear my kids using it, if I had any.
    I have to admit though I have some disquiet about the tone of the campaign surrounding the sense, particularly the way in which it has been labeled as universally homophobic. The rating of hate language by vocabulary alone is an extremely blunt instrument, instead it needs to be understood that the classification of hate language is as much in the context in which it is used as in the vocabulary itself. Is describing a police horse as "gay" to mean foolish or stupid really a homophobic act when the speaker is simply repeating a widely used sense and is not connecting it with the homosexual sense in the way they are using it?
    My concern is that with such a clumsy campaign the effect will be similar to that on "flid" in our little school all those years ago. A piece of throwaway language  that has well and truly escaped into the wild will gain a new level of power as its capacity to cause offence is amplified by the actions of well-meaning but boneheaded teachers. And the losers will be the gay teens who will inevitably suffer this freshly sharpened barb. At least there were no Thalidomide children to be offended in our village in the 1970s.
    So how else might you deal with it? The truth is, nobody owns language but the great body of its speakers, and those who try to impose their own rules on it are rarely successful. Better than imposing blanket bans and threats of punishment would be to encourage the users to come to their own conclusions about this sense of the word.
   Education, after all isn't that supposed to be the real job of teachers?


  1. Thankfully English has few words with more than one clear and unambiguous meaning otherwise communication would be impossible...

    "Bad" words are interesting and anything but universal and I have yet to find one suitable for exclaiming that something has seriously annoyed me. When working a student summer job countless decades ago one hapless middle eastern student asked me the meaning of the most popular word uttered by all the full-time workers some of whom only seemed to use that one word with subtle inflection changes. When I explained that the word described the act of attempting human reproduction the poor guy was shocked saying that that act would never be used in their profanities. We never got round to finding out just how they showed deep displeasure...

  2. I recall a french bosun whose strongest expletive was "o la vache!" or the occasional "chameau!"'d have thought that your heradmaster would have been better off explaining than forbidding, Jenny... being contemptuous of those who use 'gay' as an insult is my favoured response, but it's hard to see how that would work out. Ha, I recall the insult that I first heard when I was 11 or thereabouts - "omo". I was mystified; what's the big thing with washing powder? -hadn't heard of homosexuality....

  3. The very existence of slang words and terms probably came about because mainstream words were considered lacking in use as a form of insult. New words needed to be invented that isolated them from the mainstream as those words were in constant use in everyday life. Slang words and terms are not all offensive and much depends on the way they are used as in the 'f' word for instance, a word that has been around for centuries. Many slang words eventually fall out of use and are consigned to lexicographical history as new ones sprout into use. It isn't the word that is insulting, it is the way and intention of its use.

    Shirley Anne.

  4. Hi all, sorry it's bin a while.

    One of my areas of personal interest is the evolution of offensive language and the failure of society to recognise it. Is for instance anyone still *really* offended by "shit", or even the F word? I can produce corpus evidence to show that offensive uses of both of those are now in the extreme minority.

    And thus I'd ever forward the view that "gay" as foolish or stupid isn't even being used in an offensive sense, in that the context it's used in by Da Yoof has evolved to one of everyday vernacular.

    But of course now it's been banned and they're told it's a Bad Word, it's got Power.

  5. I suppose I am offended by the rapid erosion of language and the once punctilious UK broadcasters happily reenforcing grammatical mistakes an appalling pronunciation rather than setting a standard.

    The same could be said for your S & F words which are used so casually now as to have no real use. To be offended would make life unbearable since they are now so pervasive but I can never imagine a situation which would cause me to utter them.