Passed on by Adam Schembri in OUT In Linguistics (on Facebook):
This is generic-slur gay vs. gay ‘homosexual’, which Wentz (and others) take to be “the same word”, so that disparaging occurrences of it (with no attribution of sexuality intended) nevertheless evoke an attribution of sexuality.
Opinions differ. Sarah Cutfield in a comment on Schembri’s posting cited
Lalor, Therese & Johanna Rendle-Short. 2007. ‘That’s So Gay’: A Contemporary Use of Gay in Australian English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 27.2.147-73.
in which the authors argue that the two senses are now distinct — in effect, two different lexical items, connected only historically (just like gay ‘happy, joyous’ and gay ’homosexual’). Cutfield added:
While I’m of a different generation to the younger one they surveyed, I remain unconvinced that they really are distinct.
The cartoon version, in a 7/29/06 Zits:
I’ll focus on the one-word-or-two issue in a moment. Before that, a note on Pete Wentz, from Wikipedia:
Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III (born June 5, 1979), better known as Pete Wentz, is an American musician best known for being the bassist and primary lyricist for the American rock band Fall Out Boy. Since the announcement of Fall Out Boy’s indefinite hiatus, Wentz has formed the experimental electropop group Black Cards.
Now, on disparaging gay vs. homosexual gay, I looked at some of the complexities in a posting on the kids’ game Spear/Smear the Queer:
I understand that in this context labeling a kid as the Queer is no attribution of homosexuality, gender deviance, or whatever. But the name still gets its power as a put-down from its uses in other contexts. I can embrace gay, queer, and yes, fag/faggot in many contexts — gay and queer have become completely naturalized in a variety of contexts, and dyke and fag have been reclaimed in some — but in the end it depends on who’s saying these things to who and for what reasons, so that they can be fighting words.
The generalization of terms like gay and queer (and retarded and many other slurs) to generic slurs is entirely understandable to me as a linguist, and as an ordinary user of English I know how to calculate which sense of these words is intended in context. Still, I’m unhappy with the generic-slur uses of gay and queer, and especially dismayed at the idea that people who use them might still connect them with the ‘homosexual’ sense subliminally. Phonological identity can prime semantic association.
So there are campaigns — Youtube videos with comedian Wanda Sykes and others — against the use of gay as a slur conveying deficiency (glossed most often as ‘stupid’, but in the vernacular as, alas, ‘lame’ or ‘retarded’, in their slur senses).
Queer got into this pickle, of course, from its ‘strange, odd, different’ uses. That is, its slur use started as a simple euphemism (like that way in “He’s that way, you know”), but then (as so often happens) the euphemism inherited the socially uncomfortable meaning it was originally designed to avoid.
Then, like gay, it was generalized to broader uses, though not, I think, fully detached from the homosexual slur sense. But I do know that some kids, challenged about their using spear/smear the queer as the name of a game, say simply and with some puzzlement that queer was just their word for It in the game.
A similar unawareness of the sexual sense of gay among (some) children has been reported elsewhere, for instance in the foreword to:
Letts, William J. IV & James T. Sears. 1999. Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
where we read:
Face it: “That’s so gay” has become the mantra of elementary-school children, a mantra invoked whenever a child encounters something or someone they do not like or understand or appreciate. As one third-grader put it plainly when asked by her teacher what “gay” meant: “I don’t know. It’s just a bad thing.”
But many schoolchildren are savvier than that, and research on bullying indicates that some of them deploy gay as an attribution of homosexuality. The question is whether they connect this use to merely disparaging occurrences of gay.
Now, there are cases in the world of slurs and taboo words where an item has diverged semantically from its historical source, to the point where there are now clearly two (synchronically) unrelated words: dumb and dummy, for instance. The original sense of dumb in English was ‘incapable of speech’, and the original sense of dummy (< dumb + -y) was ‘a dumb person, a deaf-mute’, but both words developed other senses, notably ‘foolish, stupid, ignorant’ for the first and ‘oaf, blockhead’ for the second, both in the 18th century (and then ‘counterfeit object’, in several contexts, for dummy in the 19th, which gives us things like crash test dummy). By now, speechless dumb survives only in an assortment of fixed expresssions (among them, deaf and dumb, struck dumb, dumb animal, dumb-waiter, dumb cane ‘Dieffenbachia plant’), which many people associate with dumb ‘stupid’ or treat as involving a different lexical item. It would be silly to object to dumb on the basis of its historical connection to disability.
Lame has had a roughly similar evolution, though some disabilities-rights writers object to it as a slur on disability.
Then there are cases where phonological identity is sufficient to evoke the historically older use of some expression, even when the expression has clearly split in two: (older) sexual fuck vs. (more recent) expressive fuck, for instance. These matters are complicated: look at piss ‘urinate’ vs. piss in piss off ‘anger, annoy’ and pissed ‘angered, annoyed’, where in U.S. media, the first is proscribed, the second allowed.
Finally, it’s likely that the status of expressions differs from person to person, and changes over time. In the case of gay, there is evidence that for some speakers merely-disparaging gay and homosexual gay are in some sense the same item. Look at the following (two examples from among many):
Hey guys! What’s up? I’ve been watching your Prop 8 YouTube video over and over since Diana posted it yesterday, and I feel compelled to tell you: YOUR SON RANDY IS GAY. I don’t mean in that Hilary Duff way ['lame']. I mean gay-gay. Don’t ask me how I know; I have wicked awesome gaydar is all. (link)
This is so gay. I don’t mean in the way that anything uncool or unfair or boring is “gay” these days. I mean gay gay. (link)
The X-X construction here is known in the business as Contrastive Focus Reduplication (most recent discussion on Language Log here, with references and links). From
Jila Ghomeshi, Ray Jackendoff, Nicole Rosen, and Kevin Russell, “Contrastive Focus Reduplication in English (the Salad-Salad Paper)“, NLLT (2004).
The semantic effect of this construction is to focus the denotation of the reduplicated element on a more sharply delimited, more specialized, range. For instance, SALAD–salad in (1a) denotes speciﬁcally green salad as opposed to salads in general, and, in the context in which (1e) was used, AUCKLAND–Auckland denotes the city in New Zealand as opposed to other cities that may happen to have this name. For a ﬁrst approximation, we characterize this effect as denoting the prototypical instance of the reduplicated lexical expression.
In this analysis, it’s crucial that in this X -X construction, the two occurrences of X are both instances of a single lexical expression; so gay-gay denotes the prototypical instance of gay — homosexual gay — and distinguishes it from merely-disparaging gay, but both are treated as instances of one lexical item. At least for people who use gay-gay this way.