LINGUIST List 13.498
Sat Feb 23 2002
Sum: New Uses of "gay"
Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>
Dorine S. Houston, SUM: So gay
Message 1: SUM: So gay
Date: Sat, 09 Feb 2002 23:49:57 -0400
From: Dorine S. Houston <dshoustonearthlink.net>
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
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
Summary of 'So gay'
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
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
used as a cover term for "stupid" by some northeast American teenagers.
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 alicegabyyahoo.com.au
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
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'.
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
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Fullerton
P.O. Box 6846
Fullerton, CA 92834-6846
From: "Carole Unseth" <wordloverkcbi.net>
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
Language is a changing thing!
From: Sandra Shearn <sandra.shearnvuw.ac.nz>
I can confirm that among young speakers of New Zealand English, 'gay'
can be used pejoratively without referencing the target's
(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.
From: Laurie Bauer <laurie.bauervuw.ac.nz>
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.
Professor of Linguistics
School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Victoria University of Wellington
PO Box 600
Ph +64 4 472 1000 x 5619 or DDI +64 4 463 5619
Fax +64 4 463 5604
From: dwilmsen <dwilmsenaucegypt.edu>
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.
Director, Arabic and Translation Studies
The American University in Cairo
28 Falaki Street
tel: 2 02 7976872
fax: 2 02 7957565
From: "Ross Clark (FOA LING)" <r.clarkauckland.ac.nz>
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.
From: G Wheeler <gwheelusa.net>
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 <tbeasleyhumnet.ucla.edu>
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
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).
From: "Janine Graziano-King" <jgk22earthlink.net>
This caught my eye because my son (11 yrs. old) seems to have
picked up "gay" at school as a negative term...at 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
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
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
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
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.
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!
LINGUIST managing editor
Wayne State University
From: "lauren hall-lew" <lahemail.arizona.edu>
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.
From: Alexander MacBride <macbrideucla.edu>
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,
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
did not usually carry the implication that the person was homosexual.
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.
Department of Linguistics
University of Utah
From: Thomas McFadden <tmcfaddebabel.ling.upenn.edu>
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.
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.
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.
From: Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl <pldeusenccat.sas.upenn.edu>
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).
Defense Language Institute
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!
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?!
> <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
> 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
From: "Earl Herrick" <eherrickgcol.net>
'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
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.
University of Toronto
From: "Skinner, Tobin" <TSkinnerfoleyhoag.com>
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)
people sometimes give it a similar meaning as they do "gay", however
"queer" belongs to a somewhat higher register because it is in less
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.
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
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.
From: "Michael A. Covington" <mcarches.uga.edu>
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)" <rosta.work2homentlworld.com>
_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.
From: Benjamin Fortson <fortsonfas.harvard.edu>
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.
From: Annie Ferreira <aferreirahtivs.com>
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
HTI Voice Solutions, Inc.
67 Forest Street
Marlborough, MA 01752
Phone: 800.255.4241, Ext. 259
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" <KHislopengcsu.edu>
Several of my students in Indiana, Kentucky, and Georgia use
"gay" to mean "stupid." I haven't heard it used in the other ways
Kristi Hislope, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Spanish
Dept. of Language & Literature
N. Georgia College & St. Univ.
Dahlonega, GA 30597
From: Michael Newman <mnewmanqc.edu>
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.'
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Dept. of Linguistics and Communication Disorders
Flushing, NY 11367
From: "Peter T. Daniels" <grammatimatt.net>
I can't be more specific, but this isn't particularly recent at all!
Peter T. Daniels grammatimatt.net
From: Veronika Koller <Veronika.Kollerisis.wu-wien.ac.at>
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.
Mag.a Veronika Koller
Department of English/Business English
Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration
From: "Kirk Hazen" <Kirk.Hazenmail.wvu.edu>
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).
From: Chester Graham <Traduxcherry.com.au>
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
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
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.
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
Institut fuer Linguistik: Anglistik
tel: +49 711 121-3120/3115
fax: +49 711 121-3122
From: "Mark Jones" <markjjoneshotmail.com>
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.
Dept of Linguistics & Trinity College
University of Cambridge
From: Johanna Laakso <johanna.laaksounivie.ac.at>
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.
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 <nancyffishbird.com>
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 nancyffishbird.com
From: Nathan Klinedinst <klinedinusc.edu>
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.
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.
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).
From: Ashley M Williams <ashleymwumich.edu>
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
From: Kara Gibson <karakarakarayahoo.com>
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" <disquodadelphia.net>
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?
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!
Here's another, equally opaque use of "gay" = 'lame', from a
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
salon.com 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.
Dorine S. Houston, Director
Institute for Global Communication
1420 Locust St., 17-R, Philadelphia, PA 19102 USA
E-MAIL: dshoustonearthlink.net 215-732-5178