Magazine | May 5, 2014, Issue

Adventures in Lexical Fashion

Today’s progressive term may become tomorrow’s slur

You may have noticed, as I have, that the word “homosexual” is becoming verboten. It is entering the territory of a slur. Last year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote a widely noticed column that began, “I’m worried about the Supreme Court.” It continued, “I’m worried about how the justices can properly debate same-sex marriage when some don’t even seem to realize that most Americans use the word ‘gay’ now instead of ‘homosexual.’” Further down in the column, Dowd quoted a friend of hers, who said, “Scalia uses the word ‘homosexual’ the way George Wallace used the word ‘Negro.’ There’s a tone to it. It’s humiliating and hurtful.”

GLAAD, the gay activist group, has a “Media Reference Guide,” which includes “Offensive Terms to Avoid.” “Homosexual” is at the top of the list. “Please use ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word ‘homosexual,’ it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered.” GLAAD goes on to say, “Please also avoid using ‘homosexual’ as a style variation simply to avoid repeated use of the word ‘gay.’” That’s vigilance. But, unlike most political language cops, they say “please.”

“Homosexual” aside, I slightly regret the loss of the word “gay,” in the older sense. I still use it, where I strongly feel it’s the mot juste. But I often add, “in the older sense.”

Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, I attended a ceremony on a village green. Nicely Rockwellesque. The village’s Christmas tree was being lit. (The saga of the word “Christmas” is another essay.) A school choir sang carols. When they started “Deck the Halls,” I thought, “Uh-oh: Will they say it?” Will they sing “Don we now our gay apparel”? They did not. They did not sing merely a replacement word, but a whole replacement lyric. Thus had a traditional carol been airbrushed, Bowdlerized.

Later, I wondered, “Will there be any dubbing of the Flintstones theme?” You remember the theme song of this ’60s sitcom. It ends, “We’ll have a gay ol’ time!” They mean a happy, festive, fun time. And what about Zorro? Will he continue to be known as the “gay blade”? Gay Brewer, the late golf champion, was born in 1932. If he had been born in, say, 1982, his mother surely would have named him something else.

When I was a kid, I knew a man named Shirley — he was retired from the FBI. A genuinely tough guy. He said to me once, “Everything was just fine until that Shirley Temple came along.” From then on, everyone took “Shirley” to be a girl’s name, rather than one that swung both ways.

In the ’60s — at the same time new episodes of The Flintstones were being aired — there was a progressive term for “homosexual”: “homophile.” In fact, there was a North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. There have always been insults and slurs, of course. And sometimes people “own” those slurs. That is, they adopt them, in part to take the sting out of them. The activist group Queer Nation was founded in 1990. Four years later, a gay activist ran for mayor of Washington, D.C., using the moniker “Luke Sissyfag.”

The counterpart of “gay” is “straight.” And often people speak of the “gay community” and the “straight community.” This second term cracks me up a little: the “straight community,” as if the vast majority of mankind lived in a neighborhood somewhere, with a church, a bar, a school, and an Elks lodge.

As GLAAD’s instructions indicate, “lesbian” is still kosher, although lesbians are known as “gays” too. Those ubiquitous letters “LGBT” (sometimes the string is longer) make a split between “gay” and “lesbian.” Spare a thought for the residents of Lesbos, all 100,000 of them. In 2008, some of them filed suit against a group on the mainland, the Gay and Lesbian Community of Greece (there’s that word “community” again). They alleged that the term “lesbian,” to mean a female homosexual, held them up to ridicule, and violated their human rights. Their suit went nowhere.

The term “same-sex marriage” is fashionable. (For instance, Maureen Dowd used it in her column.) This is interesting, because the word “gender” has largely replaced “sex,” where male and female are concerned. My guess is, people like the alliteration of “same-sex,” whether they’re conscious of it or not. What’s more, same-sex-marriage campaigners have hit on the term “marriage equality,” to describe what they’re after. That is a masterstroke, politically — but not quite as ingenious as “pro-choice,” to describe support for legal abortion.

One day in 2004, the governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, announced, “My truth is that I am a gay American.” That is a very contemporary sentence — including the “my truth” part. Also, the phrase “gay American” has a civil-rightsy ring: “black American,” “Japanese American.” A few years ago, some people started to refer to illegal aliens as “undocumented Americans.” To question these document-impaired individuals, you see, would be unpatriotic.

#page#When it comes to race, we have gone through evolution upon evolution. “Colored” was once a progressive term. A remnant of it can be found in “NAACP” — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established in 1909. The term “colored people” is now radioactive and ugly, but the term “people of color” is rather cool. In other languages, there would be no difference between the two terms (gens de couleur). We in America shave things very close.

“Negro” rode high for a while, and a remnant can be found in “United Negro College Fund,” established in 1944. The last person I heard use the word “Negro” was Justice Thurgood Marshall, who proudly, defiantly used it until he died in 1993. Actually, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate used it far more recently — in 2008. Speaking privately, Harry Reid said that he had high hopes for Barack Obama’s electoral success: because the candidate was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” When these words were reported, Obama gave his fellow Democrat a pass, saying, “I know what’s in his heart.”

“Afro-American” was a contender for a while. And then “black” reigned supreme. We had a slogan, “Black is beautiful.” I suppose I thought “black” was here to stay. But it was supplanted, to a considerable degree, in the late 1980s, by “African American.” One day (or so I remember), Jesse Jackson announced that, henceforward, black people would be known as “African Americans,” and, lo, everyone complied. It was as rapid a social change as I’ve ever seen — even rapider than the stigmatization of smoking. I remember people around me — white people — turning on a dime, saying “African American” where they had always said “black.” The term seemed awkward in their mouths, at first. All those syllables!

Plenty of people prefer “black,” and one of them is Condoleezza Rice, as she told me in an interview years ago. One of her reasons was this: “Black” is parallel to “white.” But some have seized on a parallel to “African American”: “European American.” Al Sharpton is one who uses that expression.

I find it a little amusing to hear “European American” as a stand-in for “white.” I think of a friend of mine, an Italian American, who grew up in Kansas City. There were mothers who wouldn’t let their daughters date him, because he wasn’t “white.” Now he lives in L.A. and is considered an “Anglo.” He remarks, “I can’t tell whether that’s a demotion or a promotion.”

“African American” can cause problems, as it did, hilariously, at the 2002 Winter Olympics. An American named Vonetta Flowers was part of a two-woman bobsled team. She and her partner won the gold, making Flowers the first black person ever to win a gold medal at the Winter Games. But the poor NBC announcers had no way to report that fact — because they were forbidden, apparently, to say “black.” So they wound up saying, “She’s the first African American from any country to win a gold medal!”    


Woe to anyone who enters the choppy waters between “Hispanic,” “Latino,” “Chicano,” and related terms. There are people who feel strongly — hotly strongly — about those words. In 2012, the New York Times invented an expression for George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case: “white Hispanic.” Evidently, the editors were trying to honkify the man who shot and killed a black teen.

There came a day — I can’t give you a precise date, but I think it was in the mid-’90s — when “Oriental” was out and “Asian” was in. From this day forward, “Oriental” was a slur, except perhaps when used in reference to vases and rugs. I once used “Oriental” past its expiration date — in a totally innocent way — and a friend — a friend, mind you — berated me for it. I was shocked, frankly. By the way, the British use “Asian” to mean “South Asian,” as in Pakistani, Indian, etc.

“Retarded” was once a progressive word — a wonderfully progressive word. It implied that the afflicted person was merely delayed. Long before that, there were “homes for idiots.” The people who founded, ran, and staffed them were not hateful. On the contrary, they were among the most loving and humane people on earth — probably more loving and humane than you and I are. Eventually, “retarded” people became “developmentally disabled,” “physically challenged,” “differently able,” “handicapable” . . . “Special” is a perennial — as in “Special Olympics,” and “special needs.”

Honestly, as I sit here today, I can’t tell you what the respectable, approved word for “retarded” is. I just can’t. Whatever it is today, it may change tomorrow.

Yes, today’s progressive, ultra-correct word may become tomorrow’s slur. “Gay,” for example, is preferred now, even sacrosanct. But say it tomorrow, and you may be a bigot. As a rule, I think people ought to be called what they want to be called. But they should be maybe a little patient with people who aren’t keeping pace. A little gentleness is called for — and that particular quality is not a hallmark of our age.

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