Written RamblesWords That Should Not Have Double MeaningsTyler Vendetti

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.

Fag
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.

Queer
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.

Gay
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.

Rape
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.

Retard
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.

comments

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  1. I absolutely hate it when someone uses the word “gay” to describe something, as in “That’s so gay.” Its got to be the most ignorant and biased way of speaking that I have ever heard. Don’t even get me started on the word “retarded” or “retard.”

  2. This article is great… their are so many words in the english language that loose significant meaning when we use them as slang… It reminds me of the Song from My Fair Lady… “why can’t the English..”

  3. My friends and I always FRAPE each other (Face rape, you basically just put your whole hand on each others’ faces at random moments) or NAPE (just pop each other in the neck at random moments as well) but after reading this article, those games are now being retired.

  4. Good artickle!
    I totally agree on the derogatory use of words. However..
    Language and expressions has a way of changing due to fashion. People will allways try to make language their own, both adding and subtracting words – even from another language. The English language has largly kept it´s own due to William Shakespire. Swedish (my language) is changing rapidly.

  5. This was a great article! <3

  6. I think you made some excellent points! I personally like the word queer though. I identify as it and think it is a legitimate term for members of the LGBT community to use. Our LGBT resource center on campus actually changed their name to the QRC or Queer Resource Center. It is a nice ‘umbrella’ term for the ever growing community of indivuduals that identify as something different than the binary.

  7. The original stage lyrics to I Feel Pretty actually ARE “bright” and “tonight”. The scene in the stage musical where Maria sings the song takes place at nighttime, at pretty much the exact same time that the Sharks and Jets are fighting. The movie actually made quite a few changes to the timeline of events, so in the movie the I Feel Pretty scene happened during the day… hence why they changed the lyrics to “gay” and “today”. It wouldn’t make any sense to say “today” when the stage scene takes place at night. They also switched the places of Cool and Gee Officer Krupke in the movie from where they are in the stage musical, and added the Shark boys to America.
    And I know the lyric wasn’t changed afterward to make it more PC, because the original stage (NOT movie) soundtrack has “bright” and “tonight” in it.

  8. I knew that words had a double meaning, but I didn’t know all that. Thanks for these explainations

  9. I totally agree with everything you said and I am so glad you wrote this article. These words are so hurtful and are used so freely in everyday language. The worst part is some people use them and don’t even realize that they are hurting someone else’s feelings. I am always the person to call someone else when they misuse these words. People don’t get how defining something they dislike with something others identify with could be offensive.

    I love your use of humour with the use of candy genocide. To explain it to people who just don’t get it I usually ask them if the object they are describing as “gay” actually has a sexual orientation. I seriously doubt the math test you just took and referred to as gay is a actually a homosexual.

  10. The song that you are referring to in Glee was a “mashup”, where they put pieces of two songs together to make one. Neither of the original songs ever had the word gay in them. I think you need to do some research.

  11. I would like to point out that retard was used as a medical term to describe someone with mental disabilities. I would never use it in terms of someone who has a mental handicap, but if my friend is acting stupid I will 100% use it.I would also like to point out that real genocide is never funny, but candy genocide is always funny.

    • @Maggiee: Do you also say things like, “That’s so gay!” when something you deem stupid happens, or say “You faggot!” when someone makes you angry? The use of the word “retard” to mean stupid is the same thing. It’s a hurtful word and it really offends a lot of people. http://www.r-word.org/

  12. Faggot is because when then used to burn homosexuals they wouldn’t even bother to use a stake like they did for witches. They would just throw them in the fire with the “faggots” (bundle of sticks).

    At least that’s what I learned from watching Louie.

  13. Queer actually has become a legitimate term for a portion of the LGBT community that refers to their rejection of the binary sex model. A lot of people don’t know that and use it as a derogatory term, but it’s used by some people to describe their sexuality. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/12/style/tmagazine/t_m_1180_1182_devendra_.html?_r=0

    I completely agree with you on all these points, though. Another one to consider is the word bitch which refers to a female dog, usually when she’s in heat. When a female dog is in heat, male dogs just come up and have sex with her. When you call a woman a bitch, it is basically saying, “It’s totally natural for someone to try to rape you.”

    • I totally agree about the “bitch” situation. I’ve tried to get most of my friends to stop saying it, but some of them just choose to ignore it on the basis that we have different interpretations of the word. I think that they’re shaming and oppressing all females, and they think they’re teasing or expressing frustration.

    • Queer is a word that I personally d0n’t like, but some people have reclaimed it with the conviction that if they own it, no one can use it against them–which is a reasonable idea, but not one that I personally embrace because I believe that it’s not the LGBT community that should have to change their ways in a name-calling situation.

      The word faggot, I believe, originates from when non-heterosexual people were burned at the stake (thus being equivalent to a bundle of sticks). It’s a horrible origination that most people don’t know about, and they don’t recognise why it’s even wrong.

  14. I have to say I love how you came up with the conclusion as to how the faggot became such a derogatory word..and though I respectfully agree the holocaust was the worse thing to ever happen in history i have to admit your candy genocide sentence made me laugh….but sadly it’s how the world turns and people with issues will always find some way to make others feel bad…another word you can add is Butch…referring to a female dog though used to describe a girl with an attitude or disliked…I heard this slot in school referring to how I had a few bfs never understood it until someone pointed out how female dogs get in heat…I was pretty naive…but I chucked it off as others insecurities since I kept things “in my pants” all thru hs…

  15. “I feel pretty and witty and bright” is the actual lyric…