LINGUIST List 13.498

Sat Feb 23 2002

Sum: New Uses of "gay"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  • Dorine S. Houston, SUM: So gay

    Message 1: SUM: So gay

    Date: Sat, 09 Feb 2002 23:49:57 -0400
    From: Dorine S. Houston <>
    Subject: SUM: So gay

    Re: Linguist 13.267

    Thanks to the many Linguists who wrote in response to my question! I asked whether members of this list had been hearing a new use of 'gay' to mean 'stupid'. The question arose when in internet chat with an international group of women one mentioned hearing it among young people in Hong Kong. Many respondents from this list indicated that the meaning was not new, and referred to their childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. In the group I was chatting with, where nobody knew the use and even remembered an older meaning of 'happy', 'cheerful', 'bright', the group members are all women ranging in age from 50 to 70+, in other words, a considerably older group (all Englsh NSs from several countries, and none linguists) than the respondents who insisted that the usage has been around 'forever'.

    I then quizzed my nieces and nephews, ranging in age from 12-34, and got a mixed response, more of this 'new' usage attested to by the younger ones. However, a 4-year-old goddaughter does not know the term. (She goes to a pre-school in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia). My husband, who teaches high school in the School District of Philadelphia, is not aware of hearing it in his school (86% African American and 4% Hispanic student body. I gather from the messages that the respondents who know the usage were brought up white and suburban. A respondent who has just moved to the Philadelphia suburbs mentioned that her children, now living in a predominantly white suburb, are newly picking up the usage. On the other hand, a niece of mine attending a private and 99% white private school (jr. high) in the suburbs of Wilmington, DE, does not know the usage. Some repondents refer to its use in movies and on TV--I have not seen any of the items mentioned.

    Most respondents do not associate the term with any form of homophobia, the younger they are, the less likely they seem to be to do so

    These comments reminded me of my mother-in-law (1912- 1991) who always used 'queer' to refer to people or things that simply seemed strange to her. She was a very liberal woman and would have never engaged in any form of discrimination against any 'different' group. On the other hand, my father (1918-1986) rebuked me in the early 1960s for using 'queer' the same way. He said he had learned in the army (WW II) that it had a 'bad' meaning and he did not want me to use it. He refused to explain it, however, saying I was too young to understand (not true at that point). When I understood that it meant 'homosexual' (I did not encounter the word 'gay' for homosexual until the end of the 1960s) I realized that my father was not so much concerned that I not slur such people, but that his 'little lady' daughter was not supposed to know such things or speak of them. In short, I believe he considered it an idea a 'lady' would not speak of or know about. I sense that 'gay' for 'homo- sexual' was probably not used by 'sheltered' people until the past 30 years. On the other hand, one respondent sent me the text of a 191th century poem that uses 'gay' in this way, a surprisingly (to me) old attestation to this meaning. My father- in-law (1911-1982) did not use it as often as his wife,but he was generally more taciturn. He had not been in military service at any time--he was a teacher and excused--so maay not have been as broadly exposed as someone who spent 3 1/3 years in the Army. My mother had never used 'queer' in any sense and complains that 'gay' has been 'hijacked', as do some of her friends.

    A nephew now in Afghanistan, an Army major, knows 'gay' for 'stupid' but his sister, a homemaker with 3 children, does not.

    So much for background on why I thought 'gay' was undergoing a second change in meaning in my lifetime. Some respondents seem to share that feeling with me; those who do may be over 40. ?? Younger respondents (who refer to being in grade school in the 70s or 80s) seem unaware of gay as 'happy, bright', in contrast to my grandmother (1896-1972) who only knew that meaning.

    This 'new' meaning seems to be both wide-spread and spotty. Even here in the Tri-State area responses are mixed.

    Below is the complete text of all the responses, amounting to some 20 pages in WP--except that I have deleted the salutations and closings to save space.

    Summary of 'So gay'

    From: I'm a 20 year old linguistics student - and when I was in high school just a few years ago in suburban Connecticut, the word "gay" was used quite prevalently to mean generally "stupid." Example: "We can't play football because the soccer team is practicing. That's so gay!" I didn't observe it used as much as a (non-sexuality related) personal insult, although I'm pretty sure it could have been - perhaps I just wasn't present for those types of conversations (I wasn't particularly close to the people I knew who used this term). Its use as a general marker of stupidity, though, was constant (at least, by people who didn't care about its connotations, perhaps 25% of my high school).

    I really hated the term because of its obvious homophobia - but I hope it's useful for you to know that during the late 90s "gay" was definitely used as a cover term for "stupid" by some northeast American teenagers. Ruth Kramer

    From: Jason S Lilley <jlilleyUDel.Edu>

    The use of 'gay' to mean 'stupid' or something generally derogatory is definitely becoming widespread among young people here in the U.S. (much to my chagrin). In fact, my girlfriend (age 21) used it a few times in my presence when we first started dating. When I confronted her about it, she sincerely asserted that she saw no connection between its sexuality definition and its use as an insult. That is, she honestly didn't mean for it to be taken as a homophobic slur. She picked up this use of the word from other people her age. My theory (and I have absolutely no evidence for this) is that it started out as a slur, and then generally came to be used as an all-purpose insult by ignorance.

    Jason S. Lilley U.D. linguistics grad student

    From: Alice Gaby I would definitely agree that there has been a shift in the use of 'gay' towards a meaning of stupid/annoying/boring. I have heard it used in this way many times here in Melbourne (Australia), and I can give you two quotes heard recently: 1) "That film was so gay" (said of a film that did not in any way deal with homosexuality)

    2) "That was the gayest New Year's Eve ever" (said once again of a party that was in fact complained about as being too 'straight').

    Although I imagine this use does stem from an originally homophobic expression, it does seem to have quite clearly lost these connotations in the above examples. The current usage reminds me in some ways of the American expression 'lame'. Also, I have a feeling that people I have heard using it had picked it up from the tv show 'South Park'. Alice

    From: "Greathouse, Laura" <lgreathouseExchange.FULLERTON.EDU>

    In my research in 98-99, I worked with Iraqi Kurds and Arabs who were refugees to the US. These children were acculturating rapidly, and were taking up American English in all its forms (slang and cursing first, as usual). The children often used "gay" as a major insult, meaning anything, context derived. When I quizzed the students, none knew any definition of the word, except that they didn't like it. I believe it is quite a common insult. My research, by the way, was in a grade school, students 7-12 years of age. Dr. Laura D. Greathouse Assistant Professor Department of Anthropology California State University, Fullerton P.O. Box 6846 Fullerton, CA 92834-6846 Office-(714) 278-5603

    From: "Carole Unseth" <>

    I think you may have lost sight of which meanings came first. "Gay" used to me "bright, happy, cheery", then the word was taken over and re-engineered by the self-styled "gay" community. Describing someone's brightly colored clothes as "gay" is probably not a new meaning, but the original meaning.

    Language is a changing thing! Pete Unseth From: Sandra Shearn <>

    I can confirm that among young speakers of New Zealand English, 'gay' can be used pejoratively without referencing the target's sexuality. (Instead for at least some speakers a meaning associated with 'stupid' or 'passe' is implied. I recently overheard two people discussing 'Shortland St' a local soap opera here in New Zealand. One of the two mentioned that his household watched it. The other noting that the show is less popular than it used to be (almost a national obsession, along with rugby) remarked that he couldn't believe they still watched it, because it was so gay now. ( I can't recall his exact wording but something very similar to this.) Interestingly the use of the 'stupid' version of 'gay' is restricted to young males, the same group who use the 'homosexual' put down most frequently. Martin Paviour-Smith

    From: Laurie Bauer <>

    I've just been interviewing 11 and 12 year old New Zealand children, and they certainly use _gay_ to mean 'stupid', at least in some areas. Laurie Bauer Professor of Linguistics School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Victoria University of Wellington PO Box 600 Wellington New Zealand Ph +64 4 472 1000 x 5619 or DDI +64 4 463 5619 Fax +64 4 463 5604 www e-mail

    From: dwilmsen <>

    Now that you have mentioned it, I remember that my daughter and her English-speaking schoolmates in Egypt used the word "gay" to express their unfavorable opinion of something in a manner very like your example. This even extended to referring to a person, man or woman regardless of other connotations of the word. I do not recall when I first noticed this, but she was in school in Egypt from 1993 through 1998. Sometime in that period she was using the term. I do not think she continues to use it in that manner. I would hesitate to restrict the meaning of the word to "stupid" in its standard meaning - these slang expressions are not usually directly translatable into more standard expressions. What is more, the word "stupid" is used by the young to express be stupid, as you have noted with "gay". Is the sitting for two A-levels in one day stupid, or is it the administrators who assigned the task who are? In any case, my daughter and her friends would use "gay" without reference to any human agents. David Wilmsen Director, Arabic and Translation Studies The American University in Cairo 28 Falaki Street Bab El-Louk Cairo, Egypt tel: 2 02 7976872 fax: 2 02 7957565

    From: "Ross Clark (FOA LING)" <>

    I became aware of this usage among NZ high school kids a couple of years ago.

    It is common with the kids on the cartoon series "South Park", e.g. in the last episode I saw:

    Cartman: I'm not going to some gay-ass Fat Camp! My guess would be that, despite the success of homosexual rights activists in establishing "gay" as a polite descriptive term, the imputation "homosexual" remains an insult among large numbers of young males. "Gay" as the most prevalent term thus acquires derogatory force, and is soon generalized beyond any specific sexual connotation. Much in the same way, half a century ago, my friends and I used "queer" as a general term of abuse, without any sexual suggestion, indeed before we had much idea of what sexual orientation might be. Ross Clark

    From: G Wheeler <>

    Hello and greetings from Abu Dhabi. I agree with your Hong Kong informant. My sixth-grade son at the American Community School (the main school for Americans here) has told me several times that "gay" is now equivalent to "stupid." About half the kids are actually American; the others are a mix of Asians, Europeans (non-British), and Arabs. Considering that these are children of highly educated diplomats and businesspeople, and that the turnover here is about 30%/year, I'd say that this is a sign that such a usage is definitely gaining ground. I'd never thought of it, but I imagine that the 50% of NNS will go back (or move on to another country) and spread the usage that they find here.

    Personally, my son is not allowed to use it, but we know how futile it is to try to fight the linguistics hordes. Garon Wheeler, Ph.D. Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE

    From: Tim Beasley <>

    I first heard 'gay' as a general pejorative from a Caltech student in mid or late '88; he was home visiting his parents, who had recently moved to Oregon. It was on par with 'lame' as a general term of abuse, and he regarded it as neither a term of abuse for gays (for which he had far more colorful and wide-ranging terms), nor as a recent or trendy innovation. For recent and trendy, bordering on ironic, he had 'hoy'. So by late '88, 'gay' had become entrenched enough for there to have been at least one potential rival to be coined and to spread throughout Caltech.

    'Gay' as a term of abuse never automatically adhered to people in this kid's speech, come to think of it. 'Gays' = people was reserved for more formal settings or when 'real adults' were around, and intonation was required for it to be an insult, "pejorative" wasn't automatically part of the word's meaning in that context. If somebody really was gay (=homosexual), 'gay' wasn't the pejorative he'd use. He had far more colorful terms.

    I concluded that he just had either different lexical entries or two different definitions for the term. Similarly, 'radical' = people was term of abuse, while 'radical' applied to events or things, or, with the right intonation, even applied to people, was a term of approval and liking; he frequently clipped 'radical' to 'rad', but the unclipped form was alive and well in his speech. 'Lame' applied to people or events was likely to be a termn of abuse, but if he described a dog as 'lame' it was either just faor indicated sympathy; once he described some politician or prominent person as lame and was acutely embarrassed when somebody pointed out that the person really did have a handicap of some sort. In '88 I was living in Eugene, Oregon, and noted that the other kids his age or younger in the church his parents and I attended had never heard of 'gay' (or 'hoy') used as a general term of abuse. Some adopted 'hoy' as a synonym for 'lame'--missing the irony in his voice--and rejected 'gay' out of hand. Some seemed embarrassed by his use of it.

    Recently I watched South Park and was mildly amused by the explicit punning on the three different senses of the word. The meanings are apparently well and sufficiently widely established. The shift in meaning has long since happened for some groups, and just hasn't made it throughout all the different social networks. Actually, at UCLA in the 90s, the term caused some conflict. Some groups considered it homophobic, others used it as a matter of course without apparently making any connection with other meanings for the word (as did the guy from Caltech a few years before). Tim Beasley

    From: "Janine Graziano-King" <>

    This caught my eye because my son (11 yrs. old) seems to have picked up "gay" at school as a negative first, I thought the meaning was simply "homosexual" and that using it was identifying some kid as "less masculine" in order to increase the masculinity or toughness of the user. And while this seems to be true, it definitely has negative connotations in their world. I don't know whether it means "stupid" to them, but it is an insult. When I first heard it, I had a long talk with him because I found the negative connotation upsetting. If I hear it used for something other than another kid, I'll let you know!! Best, Janine Janine Graziano-King, PhD. Linguistics & Communication Disorders Queens College/CUNY 65-30 Kissena Boulevard Flushing, New York 11367-1597

    From: Clyde Hankey

    My now-teenage granddaughters do use the expression insultingly as your teacher-source indicates. But they also as pre-teens used it, typically of their age-mates, in a gentler way, reminding me then and now of the way some Brits use `wet` -- perhaps in the sense "pitiful" but not a hateful attribution at all. This in a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio. Clyde Hankey


    I have been noticing a similar phenomenon--and have been considering doing a study on the shift as well.

    I agree with your assessment that the meaning/use has changed, but I disagree with your conclusion that 'gay' as a general negative adjective indicates homophobic attitudes. I propose that the three meanings (cheerful, homosexual, and 'not cool') are actually growing farther apart and will become entirely separate from each other. I base this on several observations: 1. Among the age group that uses 'gay' to mean 'not cool', homosexuality is becoming more accepted rather than less. This acceptance is evident in the popularity of such TV shows as "Will and Grace". "How gay is that?" is a rhetorical question used frequently by young people, and it carries no reference to the 'gay/homosexual' meaning. It is the equivalent of, "How lame is that" or "That's really lame", where (similarly, I think) 'lame' no longer carries the meaning of someone who can't walk. 2. Because the use of 'gay' as 'not cool' is so popular among young people in my area (I live in Detroit), some children hear that use of the word before they know what a homosexual is. Therefore, they use the word completely without reference to or disdain for homosexuals. This tendency will help spread the use of 'gay' as 'not cool' with any connection to the meaning 'gay' as homosexual. This 'semantic bleaching' will lead to even more distinction between the 2 meanings, much as a distinction between 'lame' as unable to walk and 'lame' as not cool has developed. (I'm leaving the meaning of 'cheerful' out of this discussion, as I don't hear anyone use it anymore. I do hear 'gaily', as in "The bird chirped gaily", but not 'gay', as an adjective.) 3. I have, on occasion, used 'gay' myself--to mean 'not cool', as in , "That performance was so gay", meaning cheesy, or just plain bad. I have no thought whatsoever of any connection to homosexuality when I say it. 4. I asked my 23-year-old son what he means when he says something is 'gay'. He replied, "stupid". I asked if it had any connection to homosexuality; he said it did not. Since your conversation was among people from all over the world, what I think is true for this area of the U.S. may not be true where they are. However, I do think that we should be careful when attributing 'homophobic attitudes' to youth, based on their use of slang.

    Karen Milligan LINGUIST managing editor Wayne State University


    I posed a couple of questions to one of my gay (male) friends to see how the word is used and understood in the gay community.

    Here are some of his comments:

    "When I was growing up people always said it as a term of negativity... and that is how I learned it...and I am speaking in general terms of my age population. So as a child we never even understood what the word meant or what we were actually referring to when we used the word gay in a negative fashion. It was just a word that we incorporated into our own personal dictionary as if passed down from the older generation (regardless of meaning), other examples being other slang words popular at the time.

    "It is a tricky word because it has become the norm to use it as a general derogatory statement that most often does not even refer to homosexuality. So I guess the short of my answer would be that I can only say that I find offense when I take all of the factors into account as to how I hear the word being used and by who."

    And the one that best explains what I think is happening:

    "Gay people use the word all the time... I again think it has become taken on several definitions. People are so accustomed to saying it without taking it's "definition" into account. It's merely a reaction or conditioned response, not a judgement call. Just like the whole of society, gay people too, depending on their generation, have grown up with these *several definitions of the word* so they use it when it fits the situation."

    I hope this 'first-hand account' helps!

    Karen Milligan LINGUIST managing editor Wayne State University

    From: "lauren hall-lew" <> Hello! I'm a student of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Nice to meet you.

    In response to your query on LinguistList, the word "gay" has been used as negative adjective for quite a long time; at least since the early '90's, from my personal observation. Activists have long assumed that the corollary is that the concept of homosexuality = "bad" and so the term "gay" comes to be more strongly associated with homosexuality (especially since the '80's) and so, consequently, gay=bad. This can be paralleled with the language change occurring around the word "faggot," meaning in older terms "a bundle of sticks" (or the musically instrument now called a bassoon). Culture dictated the change in this word... people of homosexual persuasion were literally burned to death "at the stake" for religious reasons... that "stake" and the kindle used for the fire constituted a "faggot," and the word came to be a pejorative title for homosexuals. Lauren

    From: Alexander MacBride <>

    In response to your posting on the Linguist List:

    I recall that the use of "gay" to mean "stupid" was nearly universal among the children at my elementary school when I was in 4th grade, around 20 years ago (1982-1983). It was a fairly mild insult, equivalent in force to "lame." This was in Marin County in California, just north of San Francisco. There was a clear homophobic content to the usage, but the term's application to a person in the sense of "stupid" or "lame" did not usually carry the implication that the person was homosexual. Alex MacBride


    I have heard middle school students--more boys than girls--use the word gay to mean stupid in much the same context as you reported with the Hong Kong example. The first time I heard this was roughly two years ago. I assumed it was fairly common in the US among young teens. A more systematic study would be interesting. Terri Cononelos Department of Linguistics University of Utah

    From: Thomas McFadden <> The schoolyard use of gay to mean stupid or as a general insult is not new. it was used in exactly the same way when I was a schoolkid 15-20 years ago. curiously enough, the homophobia involved would have to be indirect, since I can distinctly remember that we used the word before we knew it's more general meaning. I've also noted that recently young adults have started using gay in this way again, maybe as a backlash against political correctness or out of nostalgia for playground talk. Thomas McFadden From:

    Yes, I have heard sev comments from my son and his friends that basically mirror the first use of the word 'gay', like the woman noticed in Hong Kong. He is in the ninth grade, just turned 15. We live in Santa Cruz, Calif. (and I am a linguist ;) ). I am thinking this started around early summer 2001 or maybe that is just when I started hearing it sprinkled in some conversations. Patty Davies

    From: CDC Temporary <cdctemp1Exchange.FULLERTON.EDU>

    My name is Katherine Martinez. I read your query on Linguist list with much interest . This use of the word gay to mean "stupid" is not a new one. I am 41 years old and when I was a kid here in Los Angeles we always said "gay " to mean stupid. For example: if someone asked "How was the party?" and I thought it was a dull or silly party I would reply "It was gay" and everyone would know what that meant--it was a waste of time. This term applied to anything such as an event, outfit or even a movie. If I tried on an outfit and was disappointed with the way it looked it was immediately pronounced as "gay". Again, "stupid" or "a waste of time". I never thought about any connection to the use of the word as an insult when I was growing up, it was just a slang word all kids used in this way, back in the 70s. We never thought about it in terms of the gay population at all. Although today I can understand its use in such a fashion is insulting, this particular use of the word is locked into my mentality and sometimes will slip out! Please feel free to email me with any questions, I hope I've shed a bit of light on this. Katherine From: Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl <>

    I just wanted to respond to your query on the Linguist List, as this shift had come to my attention as well and I was getting curious about it. I am a sociolinguist and we just moved from Berkeley to Philadelphia. My daughter started middle school in the Philadelphia suburbs in the Fall and soon came back using the word 'gay' along the lines you describe; for example, "that party was so gay" (meaning 'boring'); "that was a gay question" ('stupid'); "that trip yesterday was so gay"; "that was a gay throw" (in basketball--'stupid, not right"). Apparently, it's becoming part of teenage slang and carries the meanings 'stupid', 'boring', 'not right'. It can definitely not be said of a person with that meaning. She did not use this on the West Coast, so I am curious if it's something that might be spreading. Both boys and girl appear to be able to use it in this way. Please let me know what you find out! I might do some more data elicitation with my daughter and her friends. Feel free to call or e-mail me directly. Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl

    Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, Ph.D. Director, Penn Language Center University of Pennsylvania From: Hoffman, Mika" <HoffmanMPOM-EMH1.ARMY.MIL>

    The TV show "South Park" contains frequent uses of the term "gay" to mean something generally stupid or negative, as in "This class is totally gay". It's been using the term this way for at least a year or two, and the show's creators are young men (possibly in their early 30's by now). "Gay" is probably the most common general-purpose insult on the show. The usage is not explicitly homophobic (there are a couple gay characters on the show, who are made fun of, but not using the term "gay" as an insult--that is, no one ever says to them, "Oh, stop being so gay", or anything along those lines).

    Mika Hoffman Defense Language Institute

    From: Chad.NilepColorado.EDU

    I am forwarding my own query to colleagues in a sociolinguistics seminar here at the University of Colorado Boulder on the topic of "so gay". My understanding of the phrase is that it may be used with the meaning you describe (highly insulting or otherwise negative), and it may also mean something like 'highly marked'.

    I have removed attributions, since I have not asked for permission from the original author.

    Subject: Re: The class is over, and he's STILL posting! To: Chad.NilepColorado.EDU

    Oh Chad, you're "so gay" for posting even after the class is over! (Which means _I'm_ "so gay" for replying!) First of all, let me say that Chomsky would be proud of your use of invented examples. (Just a little ribbing there.) Okay, to answer your question about whether the "so gay" examples are metaphorical extension, I would say (in the immortal words of Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery), "Yeah, baby!" Seems that the negative evaluation and "oddness" of being attracted to one's own sex (or just not measuring up on the old masculinity or femininity meter) is extended to objects and situations. Ain't semantic/functional shift grand?!


    Quoting Chad.NilepColorado.EDU:

    > <UNRELATED MATERIAL DELETED> > > And, yes, I do have one more post rattling around in my brain. When we read Cameron (Performing Gender Identity) and again when we read Barrett (Supermodels of the world...) we mentioned that the word 'gay' is sometimes used to refer not to sexual orientation but to mean something like "insufficiently masculine." I want to ask about another usage of the word, the phrase "so gay" as used in the following examples: > > The bus is late again. That's so gay. > It's so gay to have a final on Saturday. > > (I created these examples, but I believe the usage is correct. I often

    hear the phrase used around campus.) > > The meaning of "so gay" clearly does not refer to sexual orientation

    at all, as it is commonly applied to inanimate and even non-concrete objects. The meaning seems to be something like "marked (not as typically expected) and negatively valued." What do you make of this usage? Is it a metaphorical extension of the (marked) sexual orientation meaning? > > Thanks for indulging one last speculation for the term. > > Have a good break. > Yoi otoshi wo (Good New Year) > -- > Chad D. Nilep > University of Colorado Boulder y"

    From: "Earl Herrick" <>

    'Gay' is a word with a long history. In the U.S. for nearly 30 years, it has meant a male homosexual, but if we go back to even the post-WWI era, it had the meaning of 'carefree', 'frivolous', 'heedlessly unconventional', as when Cornelia Otis Skinner and some of her college girlfriends went to Paris in the 1920's and she wrote a memoir entitled "Our Hearts Were Young And Gay". 'Heedlessly unconventional' could be the departure from which the 'homosexual' meaning developed. (And centuries before that, 'gay' meant 'gaudy', and the family name 'Gay' may have arisen from someone who dressed in that way.)

    We should inquire whether 'gay' has the homosexual meaning except in the U.S. (or where it has been imported from the U.S.) The older meaning of 'carefree, frivolous', 'heedlessly unconventional' could well still be around in non-U.S. dialects and may have given risen to these other meanings of 'gay', since they seem to be as close to it as semantic shifts often are. Earl M. Herrick, professor of linguistics, Texas A&M Univ.-Kingsville


    The use of "gay" meaning "stupid" or something similar is not new. When I was is grade school about 20 years ago, kids used it for that, even though, it was also known to mean "homosexual" (This was growing up on Vancouver Island.) Although I hear it less among my adult peers now (in Toronto), it does crop up occasionally. One co-worker of mine uses it in the following way: "They made everyone get off the subway and wait for the next one...that was pretty gay." I have mentioned to her on more than one occasion that I find it insulting. She has curtailed the use of it around me, but tells me that its use is quite prevalent among her friends. On the bus/subway, it is used as an insult among (usually younger) high-school students, but I think the intended "insult" is to call the person homosexual rather than stupid.

    Mike Barrie PhD Candidate University of Toronto

    From: "Skinner, Tobin" <>

    The use of 'gay' as a pejorative term has become rampant among many teenagers and 20-somethings in the U.S., as well. It has almost become a catch-all for expressing any sort of negative attitude toward something. For example, "That shirt is so gay!" does not necessarily imply that the shirt can somehow be identified with the stereotypical fashion or style of the homosexual community, but just that the speaker doesn't like the shirt. This use of the word would most correspond to your description of how it's used in Hong Kong.

    I recall an e-mail discussion I had recently with a young woman who maintains a web site about MTV's horribly addictive show The Real World. She has always seemed to champion the rights and freedoms of the show's gay cast members, yet in one of her reviews she used the term "so gay" to mean "bad" "undesirable". So, when I confronted her with this apparent hypocrisy, she responded by saying that her use of "gay" had nothing to do with homosexuality, and that her brother was gay--she was just expressing her disapproval of something. While to her, this reasoning may have seemed completely logical, I personally find it irresponsible. Words are powerful, and equating "gay" with "bad" sends the wrong message to the hundreds of thousands of young gay people who hear it everyday from their peers.

    Also, the meaning of "queer" has changed similarly. My grandmother still uses "queer" to mean "odd" or "strange". Young (mostly) heterosexual people sometimes give it a similar meaning as they do "gay", however "queer" belongs to a somewhat higher register because it is in less common usage. Then, of course, there's the gay community's reclamation of the word, which has given it many new and broader meanings.

    Sociolinguistics is not my specialty, but I hope this helps. Tobin Skinner

    From: Koontz John E <John.KoontzColorado.EDU>

    From: (Sender's name and email accidentally deleted in downloading-- sorry--please identify yourself.)

    Observed in the sense of 'stupid, reprehensible' in Boulder, CO. "That is *so* gay!" I started hearing this two years ago. I wouldn't say it was the "worst possible insult." I gather it's trivial to moderate. JEK

    From: Toby Paff <tobypaffPrinceton.EDU> Absolutely correct ... it's interesting that the usage has spread to HK.

    Here in New Jersey, I've certainly heard adolescent males, who are acutely aware of ambiguous asexuality, use the word 'gay' to mean clueless. You're probably right that it is shifting from homophobia to a general put-down. Toby Paff tobypaffPrinceton.EDU

    From: "Michael A. Covington" <>

    I haven't seen these, but it's an instance of a general principle -- euphemisms don't work! Remember when "retarded" was not pejorative? It, too, started life as a euphemism.

    Michael A. Covington - Associate Director - Artificial Intelligence Ctr The University of Georgia - Athens, GA 30602-7415 USA

    From: "And Rosta (Work2Home)" <>

    _Gay_ = 'bad, worthless, feeble' is common among adolescents in (parts of?) Britain. I hear it a lot. I've only noticed it within the last five years or so, and certainly during my teenage years in the early 80s, I never heard it. It's obvious that the meaning shift is due to homophobia. If it turns out to be prevalent internationally in teenage slang, I wonder whether gangsta rap (of which I know little) might be the origin. --And From: Benjamin Fortson <>

    The use of 'gay' as a fairly all-purpose term of abuse is at least as old as the late 70s, and probably antedates that. I remember hearing it frequently in grade school back then. "That's so gay!" meant "That's so stupid" or the like. Ben Fortson From: Annie Ferreira <>

    Regarding your query - growing up in the New England states (specifically southern Maine and suburban Boston area) in the 1980s, "gay" was used to mean "lame" or "stupid". But it was used mostly towards people, as in "He's wearing a superman hat, he's so gay."

    Also it was commonly used as "wicked gay" - mean very cheesy or lame or stupid. "You like 'Dukes of Hazard'? That show is wicked gay!"

    This was before any of us were old enough to even comprehend what homosexuality was, and so when my friends and I used it, it did not mean any thing like that in nature. But perhaps it was learned from our parents as a derogatory word and we somehow transposed its meaning to fit our lives and what we understood.

    To this day I have heard people call things "wicked gay" without necessarily meaning homosexual in nature.

    The word "queer" was also used in a similar fashion, as was "retarded". It would seem that derogatory stereotype words were used by children to mean stupid in many different ways.

    Please feel free to email me if you would like to ask follow-ups. I'll be very interested in your summary.

    Annie C. Ferreira Project Manager/Linguist HTI Voice Solutions, Inc. 67 Forest Street Marlborough, MA 01752 Phone: 800.255.4241, Ext. 259 Fax: 508.485.9584 E-mail: From:

    There's a nice example in the TV series The Sopranos, where one boy who has ripped the shirt of another says, "That shirt was so gay, you should thank me." What has struck me about this is the similarities between today's use of 'gay' to mean totally noncool and the use of 'faggot' back in my distant childhood--I had no idea at the time that 'faggot' carried any connotation of homosexuality; to me it just meant a totally uncool person. From: "Kristi Hislope" <>

    Several of my students in Indiana, Kentucky, and Georgia use "gay" to mean "stupid." I haven't heard it used in the other ways mentioned. Kristi Kristi Hislope, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Spanish Dept. of Language & Literature N. Georgia College & St. Univ. Dahlonega, GA 30597

    From: Michael Newman <>

    I've been hearing about this usage for a few years now, though I haven't heard it myself, and I have a lot of contact with high school kids. My impression is that it's a white suburban thing, though that may be 'cause I do field work in a mostly non-white urban school--where as I say I don't hear it.

    In any case, it would follow the pattern of 'bad' (originally supposedly effeminate male) and the use of 'suck.' Michael Newman Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics Dept. of Linguistics and Communication Disorders Queens College/CUNY Flushing, NY 11367

    From: "Peter T. Daniels" <>

    I can't be more specific, but this isn't particularly recent at all! Peter T. Daniels From: Veronika Koller <>

    I don't see how using "gay " in the sense of "stupid", a term of definitely negative connotation, could be anything but downright homophobic. Apart from that, the phenomenon of using "schwul" (German for "gay male") as a general insult among children or teenage boys has been around for quite some time (by the way, another example of the double-edged nature of lesbian invisibility, which often saves from prosecution and insult because of lesbians not being acknowledged at all). A similar phenomenon is that, while German swear words center around feces not sexual acts, teenager have started using "verfickt/gefickt" (literally "fucked") as a pejorative adjective. Probably a loan from English. But that's by the way.

    Veroniak Koller Mag.a Veronika Koller Department of English/Business English Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration Augasse 9 A-1090 Vienna From: "Kirk Hazen" <>

    I saw your post on Linguistlist. This use of "gay" dates back to at least the 1980s. I was in 6th grade in 1981 and it was the most common way to say stupid (this is in Michigan, USA). We also used the word "fag" regularly, but only as an insult to a male person. It was not until 11th grade (1987) that I realized that "gay" had any connection to sexuality. My primary image of "gay" at the time was that preppy look where someone tied some overly bright sweater around their neck.

    My guess is that this American usage has spread elsewhere. I bet that Canada had this usage quite a while ago (as I was only 15 minutes from Canada growing up). Kirk

    From: Chester Graham <> 1. Though it offends Structuralism to imply that any authority exists, sometimes the weight of a prestige dialect is overwhelming, whether from the top down or the bottom up. In Central Demotic South Park, a worldwide prestige dialect of Colorado, _gay_ currently stands for _unfashionable_to_the_point_of_unthinkable_.

    Venturing on interpretation, I fear that your second and third examples of this (?) shift are indeed homophobic attitudes, consistent with the homophobic attitudes manifested toward the unfortunate Garrison, a personality of, but not with, South Park.

    Although a society is neither the cause nor effect of its speech, it is its speech that effectively defines it, as much as systems of Dress, Walk, Cooking, Music, or even Table manners. And South Park, there could not be anything more bottom-up than.

    2. In the dreaded sixties of the century just expired, many regretted the return of _gay_ to the province of sex slang, thus clouding the serenity of Yeats's

    Lapis Lazuli for Harry Clifton

    I have heard that hysterical women say They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow. Of poets that are always gay, For everybody knows or else should know That if nothing drastic is done Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out. Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in Until the town lie beaten flat.

    All perform their tragic play, There struts Hamlet, there is Lear, That's Ophelia, that Cordelia; Yet they, should the last scene be there, The great stage curtain about to drop, If worthy their prominent part in the play, Do not break up their lines to weep. They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay; Gaiety transfiguring all that dread. All men have aimed at, found and lost; Black out; Heaven blazing into the head: Tragedy wrought to its uttermost. Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages, And all the drop-scenes drop at once Upon a hundred thousand stages, It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce. On their own feet they came, or On shipboard, Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back, Old civilisations put to the sword. Then they and their wisdom went to rack: No handiwork of Callimachus, Who handled marble as if it were bronze, Made draperies that seemed to rise When sea-wind swept the corner, stands; His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem Of a slender palm, stood but a day; All things fall and are built again, And those that build them again are gay. Two Chinamen, behind them a third, Are carved in lapis lazuli, Over them flies a long-legged bird, A symbol of longevity; The third, doubtless a serving-man, Carries a musical instrument.

    Every discoloration of the stone, Every accidental crack or dent, Seems a water-course or an avalanche, Or lofty slope where it still snows Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch Sweetens the little half-way house Those Chinamen climb towards, and I Delight to imagine them seated there; There, on the mountain and the sky, On all the tragic scene they stare. One asks for mournful melodies; Accomplished fingers begin to play. Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

    This century may see _gay_ reundevalued. Chester Graham

    Dorine, in Germany ('schwul' - the literal translation) is a very strong insult among primary school children and teenagers - and the kids even differentiate with regard to gender / sex, viz. 'lesbe' (lesbian)!! Best Anita Anita Fetzer Universitaet Stuttgart Institut fuer Linguistik: Anglistik Keplerstr. 17 D-70174 Stuttgart Germany tel: +49 711 121-3120/3115 fax: +49 711 121-3122 e-mail:

    From: "Mark Jones" <>

    I heard 'gay' used with the sense 'stupid' amongst under 20's in Hertfordshire UK in 1999. The meaning seemed to be quite new then, as members of my age group (I'm 30) needed an explanation from the first speaker we encountered. He said it meant 'stupid'. If they have it, it's a good chance London does too. Mark Jones Dept of Linguistics & Trinity College University of Cambridge

    From: Johanna Laakso <>

    I don't know whether this is of any relevance for your query, but it is obviously a general tendency among children or boys in particular to use the words for 'homosexual' as merely an insult, to such an extent that the original meaning is forgotten. This goes for Finnish children's language at least: I have heard a couple of cases being reported and myself witnessed the same with my son, aged 8, viz. that the word "homo" is generally understood and learnt in the sense of 'stupid' or something like that, and the child is really baffled when somebody explains the "real" meaning for him. Johanna Laakso Univ.-Prof. Dr. Johanna Laakso Institut f�r Finno-Ugristik der Universit�t Wien Universit�tscampus, Spitalg. 2-4 Hof 7, A-1090 Wien |

    From: Nancy Frishberg <>

    The film "It's Elementary" addresses the issue of educating school age children about homosexuality. Among the topics they take up is the usage. The film was created with the cooperation of several classrooms in the US. Nancy Frishberg +1 650.556.1948

    From: Nathan Klinedinst <>

    I am a 24 year-old semanticist here at U. of Southern California. For as long as I can remember (1st grade?), people of my same age have been using 'gay' in the ways you mentioned. I seem to recall my playmates using 'gay' for something like 'stupid', and as an insult, long before any of us had given much thought to homosexuality or sex in generaI. I still encounter this usage among my less 'enlightened' peers. I would hardly say that this usage is recent, therefore. Nathan Klinedinst

    From: "Mike O'Connell" <Michael.OconnellColorado.EDU>

    How funny because when I hear my younger brothers-in-law using this sense of "gay", I'm amazed that this usage persists to this day and is used well beyond the elementary-shool age that I heard and used it at. My experience was between 1973 and 1979, and it was ubiquitous at that time in our catholic elementary school in Edmonton Alberta Canada. Mike O'Connell

    From: "Mary Paster" <pastersocrates.Berkeley.EDU>

    With respect to your Linguist List query, I'm quite familiar with the use of 'gay' to mean 'stupid', as in the example you got from the woman in Hong Kong. I'm a 24 year-old from Ohio, and people in my social group use 'gay' in that way very frequently. A common variant, with the same meaning, is gay-ass'. I wouldn't say that either of these terms is a horrible insult; usually, in my dialect, they aren't used to describe a person, but a thing or a situation (as in your Hong Kong example). Mary

    From: Ashley M Williams <>

    I'm not sure how new these uses are - when I was in elementary school and junior high school (in southern California, in the 1980's), 'gay' was commonly used as both an insult and another way of saying 'stupid'. So, someone could say "don't act so gay" to a friend, meaning don't be so stupid. One could also talk about someone behind their back, or say to their face, "S/he's gay" - that is, you're insulting him/her, he/she isn't cool, there's something wrong with him/her.

    I just checked with my husband - he said that it was common when he was in elementary, junior high & high school too (also in the 80s, in Annapolis, Maryland & New Mexico). He also said that he & his friends would call each other 'gaywad' (and 'gaylord', the extreme version of gaywad) - which could be a general insult. He said that calling 'gay' could also mean that he was a coward.

    I would guess that these meanings are certainly connected to homophobia. Ashley Williams From: Kara Gibson <>

    I am a linguist, and I would like to contribute that I am familiar with the use of "gay" that you first mentioned in your inquiry.

    In junior high (1980-83 or so in Lafayette, LA), I distinctly remember peers using the term as an equivalent for "stupid", i.e. to describe someone's questionable (in terms of taste rather than gender) choice of clothing, music, etc. "Gay" was used in this sense as frequently as any other pejorative term, as I recall. Kara Gibson, Ph.D.

    From: "Larry Friedman" <>

    I found your posting on the Linguist list most interesting. I am a teacher in a public middle school (grades 6-8) and was previously employed in public high school (grades 9-12). The word 'gay' has, as you suggested, become a synonym for anything bad or negative. It is common to hear the students refer to anyone or anything they don't like as 'gay'. I find it interesting that it can refer to both people and things. More than interesting, however, I find it very distressing. They don't seem to be aware of what they are really saying. If I forbid them to use the expression, they look at me with genuine confusion and ask why. If I say that they are being offensive, they still don't understand. If I then explain that I know gay people, and that some of them are indeed finer people than the ones standing in front of me at that moment, they immediately look at me with suspicion. How can I know a gay person and not be gay myself? Homosexuality is the only minority that can still be maligned with impunity, and sometimes I feel powerless to stop it. Isn't anyone out there helping?

    Larry Friedman

    Re your query: the first point is that this isn't exactly a "new use" of the word. The use of "gay" with the meaning of 'stupid', 'uncool', or (in the slang sense) 'lame' has been attested (as "juvenile") as early as 1978 in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. It's hard to argue that the source isn't homophobic, although the current uses may be unconsciously so. There's a wonderful example of this that's been cited a lot from the Simpsons, where Nelson kisses Lisa and one of his friends says in disgust "Eeeuw, kissing a girl! That's gay!"

    Here's another, equally opaque use of "gay" = 'lame', from a web newsletter: ====== Some guys simply play the numbers game when out at the bar. Thinking to themselves, "if I go up to 100 girls tonight and use this gay line, at least one will want to go home with me." ======= For an inventory of responses to the use of "gay" = 'lame' by language users of all sexual orientations, you could do worse than check out this piece from a couple of years ago:

    A reasonably full entry for "gay" (like that of the aforementioned RHHDAS or the OED) will reveal that there's a lot more history for the word than you note below. More relevant to the sexual orientation sense than the non-slang 'cheerful' sense is the use of "gay" in Victorian times to describe (female) prostitutes or others living (what was perceived as) a dissolute or transgressive life.

    Larry Horn Cheers, Dorine

    - Dorine S. Houston, Director Institute for Global Communication 1420 Locust St., 17-R, Philadelphia, PA 19102 USA E-MAIL: 215-732-5178