On the Word “Faggot”

There’s an excellent article in The American Prospect by Gabriel Arana today entitled, “On the Word ‘Faggot.'”

Arana’s thoughts track my own on language (or, perhaps more aptly, mine track his). For example, on fluidity of language:

Like all words, “faggot” has no inherent meaning. Despite the fixed definition grammarians would like to ascribe to it, as long as the word remains in the lexicon, its semantics are under constant negotiation, shaped by the innumerable conversations in which it appears. When gay friends call each other “fag” as a term of affection or call something “fagtastic” (this was at an Adele concert), it stretches the meaning. Enough stretching and the semantics shift decisively, which is what happens with all words in a living language; they are redefined by their use, and speakers are by nature innovative.

I would go even further and say that not only are words constantly changing from their use in society, but that at a particular instant in time any particular word has as many meanings as there are speakers. Put more simply, each person has their own definition for every word in the English lexicon. These defininitons build up from the level of the individual to form various overlapping linguistic communities, each with their own patois. Many of these communities have patois that are similar enough, which is why English can be used as a global medium of communication. But every now and then there are definitional variations that emerge, and when two separate communities with slightly different patois engage with one another there is the possibility for tension.

Take, for instance, the word “gay,” which for some denotes the property of homosexuality while to others also includes an additional meaning of “stupid, silly, nonsensical.” You may have heard someone say something like, “That movie was gay,” roughly meaning that the movie sucked. Some in the homosexual community are quite offended by this use of the term as it takes one of the defining characteristics of their identity—being gay—and appropriates it toward a description that is clearly pejorative. The same can be said for the use of the word “lame.” The word is now used universally among many young people to denote something “uncool.” But there has been some pushback from the disabled community because “lame” also means, pejoratively, someone with limited physical abilities.

To me, the interesting thing is the existence of such a phenomenon, though when the rubber hits the road, people feel something must be done about existing linguistic tensions. To these ends, the homosexual community has informally started to “take back” the word “gay” by being either hostile to those who use the term or to try, more politely, a path of reeducation about the word’s original meaning and the implications of using “gay” in alternative ways.

Certainly, words both reflect cultural accretion and contribute to culture, iteratively. In that respect language has consequences. However, I believe that such efforts confuse community patois with universal linguistic meaning. It is precisely because “gay” has come to take on additional meanings that such efforts are necessary in the first place. We cannot—and indeed should not—try to turn back the clock on every word to the context in which it was first used. That “gay” has grown to encompass two separate meanings, one pejorative and one a character preference, is of no import to the extent that the former meaning is not used antagonistically toward the latter. The qualification is important because disperate action would be called for in one case verses the other. I have known people who use “gay” in its alternative way, however, and see this use as an independent branch as it were, quite separate from its other meanings. But I suppose this last statement is one of experience and observation, could vary among users, and most certainly does vary if considered on a case-by-case basis.

Overall, I think it is a far better strategy to adopt as a cultural norm the attentive use of one’s own language in unfamiliar communities, to anticipate their patois, and to let them take the lead linguistically. In this sense, use of language should be no different than standard cultural sensitivity when, say, traveling to a foreign destination.

Arana sums things up differently, but far better than I:

There is of course the issue of who gets to use the word “faggot.” Is it only gay people? Is it their friends, too? On this point I’d say the identity of the speaker is less important than the context in which it’s used—if it’s not used to demean, go for it. Having the term in broad use, of course, will lead to it being used, occasionally, as a slur. But I think that’s the price we pay for linguistic freedom: Language will be used to express hatred and prejudice that already exists in the culture. I think that’s where—in our public discourse, in conversations—we should deal with the homophobia; homophobia exists in society, not in language. Suppressing use of the word “faggot” does not, unfortunately, rid us of the idea behind it.

Taking a word out of circulation has the effect of stopping its evolution, freezing it in time, and shielding it from the cultural forces that morph its meaning. I’d rather have the term bandied about—used humorously in news headlines, on blogs, in the Twitterverse, and among friends—than to have it be unspeakable until the moment someone, breaking social convention, decides to let it out of the box.

Note: I am writing from the position of white straight male privilege. But I still might be right.

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