Date: Wed, 28 Feb 1996 13:50:58 -0800 From: Arnold Zwicky Subject: Re: GAY (Changes to the English Language) tom uharriet asks when GAY shifted from meaning 'homosexual' to meaning 'male homosexual'. stewart mason suggests it's very recent, in the past five years. first, the meaning hasn't shifted. the word is ambiguous between the wider reference (all homosexuals) and the narrower (just the central instances, male homosexuals); in this the word is like ANIMAL, which is ambiguous between the wider reference (all animals, including human beings) and the narrower (just the central instances, non-human anomals; we are rather reluctant to admit that we are animals). second, the ambiguity has been around a long time. it was there when the modern gay liberation movement began. i can say this because i was there; already in 1970 there was considerable discussion as to whether GAY was sufficiently inclusive of lesbians (and whether it should be, etc.). my references on the subject are back in ohio, but i would be very surprised if the ambiguity didn't go back well before the stonewall moment (which was, indeed, crystallizing, but it was scarcely the beginning of the world). third, all such ambiguities tend to be problematic in many contexts. hearers will go for the more specific reading, because it is more informative, unless context absolutely prevents them from doing so. (in the particular case at hand, this tendency is reinforced by the well-known phenomenon of "lesbian invisibility"; even the adjective HOMOSEXUAL calls up images of *male* homosexuals.) all this is about the *adjective* GAY. now, many lgb-folk are not particularly comfortable with using GAY as a noun (i hope i have never uttered the sentence I AM A GAY), though i believe the usage is spreading. since this is not my dialect, i'm reluctant to report on it, but i believe that there is a much stronger tendency to view the noun GAY as male-only than to view the adjective GAY this way. that is, i believe it's much harder to get a lesbian or two into the picture if you say THERE WERE LOTS OF GAYS AT THE PARTY than if you say THERE WERE LOTS OF GAY PEOPLE AT THE PARTY. in any case, given the tendency for hearers to go for the narrower reading, it makes sense to enumerate the groups in question, if you want to be inclusive. the same instinct that leads the careful person to say or write ANIMALS, INCLUDING HUMAN BEINGS or HUMAN BEINGS AND OTHER ANIMALS will lead such a person to say or write LESBIAN AND GAY STUDENTS or LESBIANS AND GAY MEN. (of course, doing so only accelerates the tendency to see LESBIAN and GAY as opposed to one another, and hence to see even the adjective GAY as male-only. linguistic change presses on.) arnold zwicky (zwicky[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] OR zwicky[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]