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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 5, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Chris Barry
Don Dewey
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Jerry Prindle
Chantal Levesque
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
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Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit ( May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).

As I write both books and columns on language and give speeches with language themes to many groups, I am asked many questions; but if I had to single out the question I am asked most often it would be, “How did the major sense of the word ‘gay’ change from 'happy'?” Here’s the explanation.

Actually, the first recorded sense, early in the 14th century, was ‘noble, beautiful,’ or ‘excellent,’ and often the term was employed poetically to praise exceptional women. The word surfaces in the late 14th century to refer to something bright or colourful, and before long this sense was extended to people who were considered carefree, lighthearted or cheerful.

But those who are cheerful might be engaging in some form of pleasure and by the 15th century it could also refer to one virtually addicted to social pleasures just a ‘gay dog’ was term reserved for a man given to revelling or self-indulgence. In 1630, William Davenant in The Cruel Brother and Nicholas Rowe later in 1703 in Fair Penitent unveiled libertine characters they dubbed ‘Lothario.’ As a result, in the 18th century the term ‘gay Lothario’ was used to refer to such a character. The same sense of a lack of moral rectitude is seen in the expression ‘gay abandon’ that refers to actions taken that are not considered with the consequences that might ensue. In the 19th century, the word was sometimes applied to a woman deemed to lead an immoral life, such as a prostitute. Also, the term ‘gaycat’ may have influenced the semantic change of the word gay. By the turn of the 20th century, this word gaycat was used by hobos to refer to a tramp’s companion, usually a young boy, and often his catamite.

The word is first used with the homosexual connotation in the 1920s by American expatriates living in Paris. The first OED citation with this sense comes from Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr & Miss Skeens found in Geography & Plays (1922): “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then. They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there . . . not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”

There is evidence that the word was used before this date. Hugh Rawson reports in Wicked Words that in 1889 during “the Cleveland Street Scandal (involving post office boys in a male brothel in London's West End), a prostitute named John Saul used gay with reference to both male homosexuals and to female prostitutes when giving evidence to the police and in court.” Gay's first dictionary appearance in its homosexual sense is in Noel Erskine's Underworld& Prison Slang (1935) : “Gaycat . . . a homosexual boy.”

Although the word still possesses the sense of ‘merry,’ the homosexual connotation is the dominant one notwithstanding the acceptability of ‘donning gay apparel’ during Yuletide festivities.

Incidentally, ‘gay’ is still evolving and is used by many teenagers to designate what they regard as socially inappropriate, what is often labelled as ‘lame.’ In 2001, the Washington Post reported, “Today, they [teenagers] often use gay as an adjective meaning ‘stupid.’ A gay movie is a stupid movie or one that makes no sense or one with a lame plot or all of those things. But soon after gay people started to protest this usage and I’m happy to say it is not used as much nowadays.

The journey of ‘faggot’ from sticks to a very derogatory one for a homosexual is a rather peculiar odyssey. The word is found in its original sense in English in the 14th century but by the 16th century it is used to refer to kindling wood used for burning heretics and the expression ‘to fry a faggot’ meant to be burned alive and ‘to carry a faggot’ referred to those who renounced heresy. The bundle sense was not lost altogether and the term by the 16th century could refer to miscellaneous bundles, and in particular, a bundle of iron or steel.

By the late 16th century a sea-change in the meaning of the word occurred and it becomes a term of abuse or contempt for a woman. This probably occurred because a broom could be fashioned from a bundle of sticks and in the process of metonymy whereby a word associated with another word substitutes, for e.g., ‘wheels’ to replace ‘car,’ faggot became a stand-in for woman. As a broom is not a highly-prized object and is associated with domestic chores often saddled on women, the term faggot became a pejorative term for a woman. This usage may also have been influenced by witches being associated with brooms and the burning of witches in the Middle Ages. Interestingly, the word ‘besom’ was used since the eleventh century to refer to a pile of twigs or a broom but the 19th century, it too became a contemptuous, if somewhat jocular, term for a woman Even in the early part of the 20th century we see ‘faggot’ used in this manner. For example, in James Joyce's 1922 Ulysses, the character Molly Bloom refers to “That old faggot Mrs Riordan,” and three years later in D.H. Lawrence's Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine a character is described as “fractious, tiresome and a faggot.” We even see this usage as late as 1961 in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphin: the young heroine admits to singeing her hair “with a faggot.”

The process of the transformation of the major sense of faggot from woman to homosexual occurs in the early part of the 20th century. The first citation in the OED in 1914 makes it clear that the word is hardly mainstream as we see this entry from L.E. Jackson and C.R. Hellyer's A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang: “Drag, Example, All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.” The homosexual sense of the word was much more common by the 1930s and in J. Dos Passos' The Big Money, we read, “The first thing Marge thought was how on earth she could ever have liked that faggot.” Faggot, is hardly alone in having its primary meaning shift from a description of a woman to a homosexual. Any derogatory word for a woman, or associated with the distinctive parts of a female, can be applied to homosexuals, or for that manner for any male perceived as effeminate or not ‘man enough.’ Examples abound, such as ‘pussy,’ ‘douchbag,’ ‘pantywaist,’ ‘nancy boy’ and other terms too lurid for print in a family newspaper.

Increasingly today, we see the word faggot being used with no imputation of sexuality as a generalized insult to describe a male regarded as a ‘jerk.’ Although some commentators suggest that an increased use of the word ‘faggot’ will render the word innocuous, (e.g.,’gay’ was once used primarily in an insulting manner, but nowadays is used merely as a descriptive synonym for a homosexual) it seems unlikely. The word ‘faggot’ still has a powerful sting to it and as we still see many gay adolescents have committed suicide being so labelled. In other words, we are not at a point in time when it is likely that this word's sense can be rehabilitated.


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