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What does "gay" really mean?

The Times reported (June 6th 2006) that "The word 'gay' now means 'rubbish' in modern playground-speak and need not be offensive to homosexuals, the BBC Board of Governors has ruled.

The ruling came about after a listener complained that the DJ Chris Moyles used the phrase "I don't want that one, it's gay." The listener argued that the use of the word gay here was homophobic.

However the complaint committee responded that "The word 'gay', in addition to being used to mean 'homosexual' or 'carefree', was often now used to mean 'lame' or 'rubbish' "and that this was a widespread use amongst young people.

The Times offers the following helpful definitions of the word

• Believed to derive from Old French 'gai,' Latin 'gaius' or a Germanic source. Originally meant 'carefree', 'happy' or 'bright and showy.

• Acquired sexual connotations of 'uninhibited morality'

• used to describe foppish dress code or unattached men until adopted by homosexuals in 1960's

• originally used as an adjective (he is gay) and now a noun (the only gay in town).

• used by children in 1990's to mean 'rubbish' and by bloggers to mean 'boring' or 'dull.'

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of 1973 features several meanings and variations (in chronological order) but does not mention the meaning of homosexuality.

  • light-hearted, exuberantly cheerful
  • airy, off-hand
  • addicted to social pleasures, immoral
  • bright or lively-looking
  • showily dressed
  • brilliant, attractive
  • excellent, fine

The word Quaker was first used in a disparaging way to describe members of the Society of Friends (as they were said to quake with the influence of God) but later adopted as a positive description by the people themselves. Some black Americans have adopted the phrase "nigger" to describe each other, in a similar strategy to be proud of a label that once disparaged them. Can you think of any other examples?

  • In your view, how is "gay" understood by a) your grandparents b) your parents c) yourself d) homosexuals. Don't assume - ask!
  • Use Google to discover definitions of the word 'gay' in use. Enter 'define:gay' without quotation marks in the Google search box.
  • Is the word used negatively or in a derogatory way, and if so by whom and of what?
  • What acceptable alternatives are there? Draw a lexical field diagram with axis acceptable - unacceptable and another axis of age.

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