Someone commented on one of my articles a few weeks ago with a very legitimate complaint about the misuse of certain words in the English language. Some words, she claimed, possess a double meaning that render it inappropriate and offensive to others. Her point is one that I most certainly agree with and while I don’t typically write serious posts, I feel like the time has come to address this issue. Unfortunately, my argument comes in the form of a rant so I’d suggest that you wind up your attention span before reading beyond this point.
Believe it or not, there was a point in time where this word wasn’t outrageously disrespectful. Fag in the more traditional sense means “to tire” or “to require to do menial chores.” It can also mean a cigarette or a blemish and, when extended to the word “faggot,” can even mean “a pile of sticks.” Now, there are a lot of unsolved mysteries in this world. (i.e. How did the universe originate? Why do humans dream? How do cats purr when they’re breathing in AND breathing out? Why does the autocorrect function on iPhones correct “so” to “do” every time?) However, the biggest question lies in how the word for a pile of sticks turned into a derogatory remark for people who happen to like a gender other than the one that society anticipates. I suspect that at some point in history, a lumberjack tripped over a pile of sticks in the forest in front of all his lumberjack friends. When he began cursing the “faggots” that had brought him embarrassment, his lumberjack friends misconstrued his anger towards the foliage as an attack on them and became offended. This is just a theory, of course.
If one compares the colloquial use of this word now to its original meaning, the present day connotations that accompany “queer” become even more infuriating. According to the dictionary, queer means “of questionable nature” or “mentally unbalanced or deranged.” When used as a verb, it can mean “to spoil or ruin” and “to put a person in a hopeless or disadvantageous situation.” Think about what this is saying. Describing something or someone as queer in a literal sense means describing them as mentally deranged. By calling someone queer, you are equating them with serial killers or religious cults that condone human sacrifice. You are also saying that their very existence puts them at a disadvantage in life, that their ability to be happy in the future is hindered by their preference for boys over girls or vice versa. Why this makes sense is still lost on me because if I told someone that their success in life was dependent on whether they preferred Emma Stone to Ryan Gosling or even Sprite to Sierra Mist, I would be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in a matter of minutes. Who or what you like is not indicative of your future success or happiness, no matter what the psychic at that office party tells you.
I was watching an episode of Glee once (what are you doing…no…keep reading…come back…IT GETS BETTER, I SWEAR) in which Rachel and Quinn were singing about their physical insecurities to the song “I Feel Pretty.” When they reached the chorus, I noticed a peculiar change of lyrics: “I feel pretty, oh so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and bright!” I’ve always considered Glee to be a very liberal show. It is the Degrassi of this generation in that it touches on about every adolescent crisis in existence. So it’s safe to say that this change in lyrics puzzled me. Why would a show that is so open about social issues remove the word “gay” from such a famous song when they obviously have no problem discussing gay issues? When did the use of “gay” become an unacceptable term for “happy”? Why do people feel the need to use this term to describe negative things? Did they lose their thesaurus? Can they not come up with a more creative way to discredit something? You know what, that’s probably it. The use of gay as a negative label is a result of a misplaced thesaurus. For those of you who are simply forgetful, here’s a list of words you can use instead of gay in the future: abominable, repulsive, horrendous, ghastly, dreadful. You’re welcome.
I’ve used this word before but not to describe the “unlawful compelling of a person through physical force to have sex.” Instead, I’ve used it as a noun to describe invasions of my personal space. Someone sticks a finger in your ear? EAR RAPE! Someone jumps in your bed and messes up the covers? BED RAPE! Someone grazes your hand while you’re walking in the hallway? HAND RAPE! (What does that even mean? That’s not even funny.) It was not until I began to hear stories about rape, real, life-altering stories, did I begin to realize how incredibly offensive I had been. You wouldn’t go up to a Holocaust survivor and say “Candy Genocide!” while chugging a bag of Skittles. And why? Because by mocking the word, you are mocking the experience. You are saying that their personal trauma was a joke, that it didn’t matter, that in the grand scheme of things, making people laugh is more important than being respectful and if that’s the case, we as a species need to prioritize.
Perhaps the biggest offender of double meanings is “retard.” This word, meaning “to delay the development of” or “to hinder,” can be properly used in professional papers and in every day life. For example: “I know drinking 5 cups of coffee every hour can retard my growth, but it’s just too good!” Fairly appropriate. The term “mental retardation” springs from this definition and in my opinion, this is the only definition that should be used. Mental retardation is not something that you can control. One cannot come into this world with the determination to not become retarded because such a decision is not, in fact, a decision at all. Would you mock someone who was born with AIDS? Born with a drug addiction? Would you mock someone who came into this world with a disadvantage already latched on to their existence? Considering where our priorities lie, I wouldn’t be surprised.
We mock the things in life that we cannot control. Sexual orientation. Race. Mental illness. Birth defects. Gender. As a society, we fear what we can never understand and from that fear comes derision because it is our only form of self-defense, because it is easier to call someone a fag than accept that they are different. It is easier to parody words like rape than attempt to comprehend their real-life implications. It is easier to create another definition of a word than accept the implications of the one already in place. So to those people (and to the world) I will say this: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all. You’re not helping anyone.
Image via Shutterstock. Definitions via Dictionary.com.