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Berkeley’s Linguistic Outlaws

John Kenneth Galbraith said a couple decades ago that “Berkeley more than Paris, more than either Cambridge [Cambridge, Mass., or Cambridge, England]…has now and for decades been known as the place where things begin.” We published a letter back in our June 1999 issue from a fellow about 50 miles east of Berkeley, saying, “At one time ‘gay’ meant happy, more recently it meant homosexual, and now it has a new meaning. Teens use it to mean lame. Instead of saying, ‘That’s so lame,’ they say, ‘That’s so gay.'”

Your Editor consulted two of his children who were then in their teenage and near-teenage years here in Berkeley, who confirmed that yes indeed “gay” means lame — and that was noted in an Editor’s Note in the same issue.

In that Editor’s Note we also said: “It’s curious that young people — even nowadays — realize instinctively that there’s something wrong with homosexuality…. Phony language [“gay”] is reprehensible, but language has a way of exacting its own revenge. Those who subvert the language by inventing cuddly euphemisms for nasty facts shouldn’t be surprised to hear their approved euphemisms being subverted in turn — in this case, it seems, by teenagers engaging in a little linguistic outlawry. Borrowing some triumphalist terms from homosexual discourse, we might say that these teens are ‘queering’ propagandistic rhetoric — that they have ‘outed’ a mendacious euphemism.”

Then in our September 1999 issue, we printed a letter from a fellow who worked as a teacher and high school administrator in Berkeley, who further confirmed the “gay”/lame equivalence among teens in Berkeley, though he was much outraged by the phenomenon, calling such teens “mean-spirited,” “ignorant,” “discriminatory,” and “gay-bashers.” The usual p.c. rant.

Well, we don’t know for sure if the “gay”/lame equivalence started among teens in Berkeley — it’s hard to trace such things — though we wouldn’t be at all surprised. But we know for sure that the “gay”/lame equivalence has made its way to Pennsylvania and is apparently a nationwide phenomenon. A fellow in Camp Hill, Penn., had a letter in the December 2003 Touchstone which says: “Gay has a new…meaning. Local youth here in central Pennsylvania have claimed gay is being used insultingly, as in ‘That test was gay.’ In fact, my collegiate son tells me that the usage is national among kids — as in ‘That’s a really gay formation; we lose ten yards every time we try it.’ [Gay] seems to denote ‘fundamentally disordered and useless’ or ‘totally counterproductive.’… Once again, the kids see right through the euphemism to the underlying truth.”

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