Friday, 30 October 2015

Gay: So It Goes

Frank Kameny archive.

Reclaiming words, when done effectively, is all about power, Thorne [Tony, curator of the Slang And New Language Archive] tells me. “Reappropriation of ethnic and sexual slurs starts as an act of bravado by a few of the oppressed, then may become an empowering mechanism for a much wider community. It’s pleasingly ironic that those discriminated against have learned the Orwellian trick employed by the state and the establishment of hijacking everyday language (as in ‘doublespeak’) for their own nefarious purposes. Alternative discourse ousts and replaces the discourses of power.”

Paul Baker, professor of English Language at Lancaster University, agrees. “Control language and you control the society,” he says...

Reclaiming words is not a new phenomenon. Thorne points out: “Reversing pejoratives has a long history going back to cavalier, sans-culotte, Tory and Whig.” [Or Christian or communist - FB]. 

Modern reclaiming has had mixed success. He says: “Recently such terms as slut, gay and ginger (and to some extent nerd and geek) have been rebranded – perhaps with a tinge of irony.” As someone who has been all five of those things, I can safely say that some have been better reclaimed than others.

Paul Baker says; “Queer was reclaimed by academics and activists in the early 1990s. There was a shouty defiance about queer too – it wasn’t just pride, it was political activism and opposition to homophobic government policy like section 28. It was a disruptive and anarchic response to conservative forces at that time. But in reality very few people actually engaged with this wider ‘anything against the normal’ meaning of queer.

“That’s one of the problems with reclaiming concepts: not only do you have a set of people who don’t understand that the word has been reclaimed in the first place, so they continue to use it in the older negative way, but you can also have different understandings of what the reclaiming actually means. And even if you’re in on it, you still may not want to participate.” We are seeing a similar thing play out now with the word “gay”...

Gary Nunn, in his monthly Guardian blog, Mind Your Language.

Note the irony of how quickly 'queer' became re-reclaimed; it's now usually used as an empty signifier of 'radicalism' by homosexualists who are about as radical as a wobbly pink blancmange.

Fagburn wonders if the word 'gay' - which has been reclaimed as a pejorative - will eventually go the same way as 'sod' and 'bugger', and become completely detatched from its homosexual meaning.

PS The UK release of the documentary Do I Sound Gay? 'inspired' a discussion on Woman's Hour today, Is there a gay dialect? (!), where Lucy Jones, an assistant professor of sociolinguistics, made the incredibly silly claim that polari was used as a code - no, it was just slang. If  'academic experts' just repeat nonsense they Googled and don't get picked up on it, no wonder we are doomed...


  1. "it was just slang."

    But on Round the Horne it functioned as a code that allowed gags to get past the censorship that wouldn't have got past otherwise. I remember a cod panelist called Rough Trade...

    Paul Brownsey

    1. Yeah, but BUT... that was more part of the great British comic tradition of innuendo, shirley???