LANGUAGE AS SOCIAL EXCLUSION.
Fco. Sánchez Benedito
Traditionally, it has been sex within the licit frame of marriage and with its main aim at reproduction, that is, heterosexual love and all its manifestations in the family, that has been understood within the norm. In other words, in what is often called the patriarchal code, it is the couple made of a male and a female partner that has been regarded as appropriate in our Western societies.
Now homosexual love did not obviously conform to the rules of this patriarchal code, and consequently love between men, or between women, has not been mentioned or has been very little spoken about in former times. As Foucault, the famous French philosopher, maintains in his History of Sexuality, what was usually named in the past were the practices, rather than the identities. It is ony from the 18th c. onwards that the lexicon used to refer to homosexuals can be said to be well-documented.
It is therefore the purpose of my paper today to analyse the terms used to refer to homosexuals and homosexual activity from the 18th c. to the present day, trying to extract their social and cultural connotations. My study centers on male homosexuality, although lesbian women form a relevant social group of people who can be categorized as homosexuals, in the sense that they feel attracted by their own sex.
For the lexicographical analysis, I will make use of the following dictionaries: Grose’s A Classsical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), Farmer and Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues (seven volumes, 1890-1904), Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1961), and my own Dictionary of English Euphemisms and Dysphemisms for the Taboo of Sex with Spanish Equivalents (2009), for which I took as a basis the OED and Jonathan Green’s Dictionary of Slang. All four dictionaries contain a corpus of lexical terms that refer to homosexuals; however, the number of words included in each dictionary varies from
in the case of the first dictionary to 665 in the last one.
It will be the aim of this paper to analyse the words and expressions included in these four dictionaries used to talk about homosexuals and homosexual activities trying to determine in what ways this vocabulary reflects the attitudes of society towards this group throughout the different historical periods under study.
With this objective in mind, drawing a map of the different metaphor each term is based on becomes essential in order to reach valid conclusions regarding today’s attitudes towards homosexuals and their evolution throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
2. Analysis by thematic fields
I will use as a corpus the terms included in my own Dictionary of Euphemisms and Dysphemisms in English for the Taboo of Sex With Spanish Equivalents (665). I will group these terms into several thematic fields according to their metaphorical basis, and analyse each field in detail.
But before we begin this analysis, I may as well clarify what is meant by euphemism and dysphemism: Euphemism is a linguistic mechanism consisting in naming something for which we feel some kind of fear, disgust or revulsion, by another name which seems socially more acceptable, e.g. ‘to pass away’ for ‘to die’, ‘call girl’ for ‘prostitute’, ‘to make love’ for ‘to copulate’, etc. Referring to homosexuality, we have euphemisms such as ‘to be that way/that way inclined’, ‘not be much interested in the opposite sex’, ‘to be a confirmed bachelor’, etc. Dysphemism, on the other hand, consists in naming one of those terms with unpleasant connotations by another term which highlights their humorous and grotesque aspects, e.g. ‘to kick the bucket’ for ‘to die’, ‘nightbird’ for ‘prostitute’, ‘to play the game of twenty toes’ for to copulate, etc. For homosexuality and homosexuals there is a great number of dysphemisms which are clearly offensive like ‘ass bandit’ or ‘ass-pirate’, for example. Finally, some terms, such as ‘the third sex’ or ‘a three-letter-man’ could be classified either way.
2.1. Homosexuality as deviance, perversion or even crime
Homosexuality has been seen in past centuries as a form of deviance, a perversion or even a crime. As I have already said, only sex between man and woman within the licit frame of marriage was accepted. This situation remained the same till well into the twentieth century. Homosexuality was considered a perversion and it was even regarded as a crime, and for that we only have to remember the process in which Oscar Wilde was involved because of his homosexual nature (he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour under the Criminal Laws Amendment of 1885).
And in fact, we find in the corpus selected, terms that make reference to homosexuality as something that does not conform to the norm like ‘abnormal’, ‘abomination’, ‘deviant’, ‘deviate’, etc.; terms that consider homosexuality as something unnatural like ‘unnatural vice’, unnatural connection’, etc; terms that relate homosexuality to perversion like ‘perversity’, ‘pervert’, ‘degenerate’, ‘gross indecency’, etc.; terms that allude to sin and biblical references associated with sin such us ‘sin of Sodom’, ‘sodomite’, ‘sodomy’, ‘sodomize’, ‘peers of the Land of Gomorrah’, etc.; and terms that classify homosexuality as a crime like ‘abominable crime’, ‘unspeakable crime’, ‘unmentionable crime against man and beast’, etc. Even Oscar Wilde himself supposedly referred to homosexuality as ‘love that dare not speak its name’.
It seems obvious then that homosexuality till the mid-twentieth century was a taboo and was not seen as a sexual activity within the norm.
2.2. Pejorative terms
Despite the change of attitude in the last decades of the twentieth century towards homosexuality and the acceptance of homosexual activities as a different way of living one’s own sexuality, there are still a lot of terms with pejorative connotations which are reflected in the words and expressions used in the world of ‘gay-bashing’, which can be defined as jargon which shows an attitude of physical or verbal assault against gays, and people who have this aggressive attitude against them are called ‘gay bashers’.
In this respect, we find terms such as ‘ass-burglar’, ‘bum plumber’, ‘butt-pirate’, etc., which are clearly offensive and in bad taste. Unfortunately, these pejorative terms have proliferated enormously.
2.3. Female features in homosexuality
Although many of them are out of fashion, there is a great number of words that stress the feminine characteristics of homosexuals.
Terms like ‘butterfly’, ‘camp’ or ‘sissy’ have feminine connotations; names of flowers, such as ‘daffodil’, ‘daisy’, ‘lily’, ‘pansy’, ‘tulip’, etc; terms like ‘doll’ or ‘dolly’, which emphasize the idea of women like dolls; terms like ‘duchess’, ‘fairy’, ‘fairy godmother’, etc. clearly allude to the feminine, as do ‘lavender boy’, ‘pretty boy’, ‘princess’, etc. They all point out to the feminine nature of the homosexual, comparing him to a woman, intending thus a mocking effect on the listener. We find the same implications in terms like ‘pink’, ‘pink pants’ or ‘pinkie’, which are connected with the colour pink as typically feminine. Many names of women are also used to mean gay like ‘Angelina’, ‘Lizzy’, ‘Mary’, ‘Mary-Ann’, ‘Molly’, ‘Nance’, ‘Nancy’, etc, used with jocular and sarcastic connotations.
Despite the fact that most of these terms have fallen into disuse, the word ‘queen’ and all its combinations like ‘African queen’, ‘butterfly queen’, ‘size queen’, etc. are still often used nowadays.
2.4. Ethnic slurs
There is also an important number of terms which allude to different nationalities and are called ethnic slurs, that is dysphemisms used as jokes at the expense of certain nationalities. They are clichés in most of the cases with very little justification for their use. Besides, many of these terms are becoming old-fashioned nowadays. Some of these words and expressions are ‘Egyptian queen’, ‘English method’, ‘Irish fairy’, ‘Italian culture’, etc.
2.5. Hiding/revealing one’s homosexuality
In the recent past, there are many homosexuals who have ‘come out’ (they have decided to make their condition public) and many others who have not, and this fact has produced a proliferation of terms to refer to these two possibilities of living a homosexual life. Many of these terms are used in gay jargon and, amongst them, we find ‘closet case’, ‘closet queen’, ‘canned fruit’, or ‘to stay in the closet’ to mean ‘hiding homosexuality’, and ‘to come out (of the closet)’, ‘to discover one’s gender’, or ‘to wear one’s badge’, to mean ‘revealing homosexuality’.
In contrast to ‘gay bashing’, we find words and expressions which reflect the gay pride. This is the case of terms like ‘aesthete’, ‘fallen angel’, ‘dive into the sky’, etc. We must also bear in mind that it is not strange to hear some gays refer to heterosexuals using pejorative terms like ‘commoner’(plebeyo), for example. By doing this, they are claiming their sexual behaviour as superior in contrast with standard heterosexuality. Oscar Wilde called homosexuality ‘Uranian love’= heavenly love.
2.7. Evil-intentioned humorous terms
There are many terms used to refer to homosexuals and their activities that clearly have an evil-intentioned humorous side: ‘angel with a dirty face’, ‘midnight cowboy’, ‘anal astronaut’, ‘eye doctor’, ‘kneeling at the altar’, ‘to pick up the soap for sb’, etc.
The explanation for the existence of these allegedly humorous terms used to refer to homosexuals may be found once again in the fact that any behaviour that does not conform to the norm in society is usually the object of mockery by those who do conform to the norm.
2.8. Rhyming slang
We give this name to a variety of slang (orig Cockney) in which a word is replaced by a phrase which rhymes with it, e.g. ‘Pig’s ear’ for ‘beer’, ‘Darby and Joan’ for ‘alone’. They are usually reduced to their first part: ‘pigs’, ‘Darby’. Very popular in the late 1800 and early 1900, they are now old-fashioned, though some, like ‘a butcher’s (hook)’ for ‘a look’ are still occasionally heard. Although not very much used nowadays, we find terms that rhyme with ‘queer’ like ‘Brighton Pier’, ‘ginger beer’ and ‘King Lear’, and others with a different rhyme like ‘bottle (and glass)’ (ass), ‘horse’s hoof’ (poof) and ‘song and dance’ (‘Nance’. Nonetheless, all these terms are good examples of the presence of homosexuality in every register of the English language.
2.9. Family terms
It is worth mentioning some family terms, which generally denote protection on the part of the older homosexual towards the younger: ‘aunt/auntie’, ‘Aunt Mathilda’, ‘daddy’, ‘nephew’, ‘uncle’, etc.
2.10. Comparisons with food
Homosexuals themselves use many terms that refer to food in their own gay jargon. Most of these terms obviously refer to the penis, like ‘fruit’, ‘tutti-frutti’, ‘candy’, etc., and some of them like ‘meat for days/for the poor’, or ‘miracle meat’, allude to big size.
2.11. Comparisons with animals
Allusions to young and old homosexuals and to active and passive roles in their relations can be found in many expressions containing animal terms. Some examples are ‘crow’s nest’ (a place where old gays look for young gays), ‘wolf’ (aggressors in prisons), ‘lamb’ (the victim of the aggressor), ‘mouser’ (active role), ‘mouse (passive role), ‘old goat’ (old gay), ‘spider lady’/’lounge lizard’ (the one who steals a partner from other homosexuals), etc.
Other metaphorical bases occur: ‘frou-frou’, onomatopoeic from the rustling of draperies; ‘poof’, a corruption of ‘puff’, probably also onomatopoeic, and ‘faggot’, for example. The latter has a curious history: originally meaning ‘bundle of sticks’, it was used, since the late 16th c., as an abusive term for women, especially old women. At around 1915, it began to be used in the
abbreviated to ‘fag’, as an offensive word applied to homosexuals, probably a
shortening of ‘faggot-gatherer’, old women, mainly widows, who made a meagre
living by gathering and selling firewood. It’s been
sometimes claimed that the modern slang meaning developed from the standard
meaning of ‘faggot’ as "bundle of sticks’, presumably with reference to burning
at the stake. It is true that supposed witches and
heretics who were
burnt to death in past times, were also often accused of deviant sexual
behaviour. However, any association of faggots with executions had long become
a historical curiosity by the time the slang sense of the word arose in
twentieth-century USA .
Moreover, burning was not usually prescribed as a punishment for homosexuality
in either America Britain or . This
explanation can therefore be dismissed as an urban legend. America
3. Historical and lexicographical analysis
The lexicographical analysis of the four dictionaries chosen for our study throws some light about social attitude towards homosexuality from the 18th c. to the present day.
The term most frequently used in the past to refer to homosexuals was ‘sodomite’, coming from ‘Sodom’, the city which, according to the Biblical account, was destroyed, along with Gomorrah, on account of its wickedness, by fire from heaven. Since the Middle-Ages, the word ‘sodomy’ was used to refer to all sexual practices that did not conform to the aim of procreation within the heterosexual relationship, especially anal intercourse, which together with masturbation and lesbianism were considered sinful and outside the norm.
In A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Grose, whose first edition was published in 1785, we find only eleven terms that allude basically to three different ideas: the sodomite, e.g. ‘gentleman of the back door’; the eunuch, e.g ‘capon’; and the effeminate fellow, e.g ‘Molly’.
The scarce number of terms recorded to allude to homosexuality in Captain Grose’s Dictionary is an indication of a society in which sex was little spoken about and where this sexual practice was not considered ‘normal’.
Homosexuality continued to be a taboo in the nineteenth century. It is true that sex began to be spoken about in some discourses of the time, especially in law and medicine but, as Foucault points out, what came under scrutiny, apart from matrimonial relations, were mainly aspects like the sexuality of children, mad men and women and criminals, and homosexuality was studied only as a sexual abnormality.
At the end of the century we find a dictionary, Farmer and
Henley’s Slang and its Analogues (1890-1904) in
seven volumes, which only contains 39 terms to refer to homosexuality. Most
terms included in Captain Grose’s Dictionary
can be found in this one and, again, they can be grouped in three different
categories: the sodomite, the eunuch and the effeminate.
The word ‘homosexual’, from Greek homos, ‘same’ + sexual, was coined for the first time in German in 1869 to name a condition that was regarded as a pathology, a deviation from heterosexuality, considered as the practice within the norm. In any case, it was a step forward as it was the first time that homosexuality was presented as a fixed aspect of personality. “In English, the term was adopted for the first time in 1892, becoming a euphemism and beginning to replace the word sodomy which had been traditionally used”.
In Victorian England buggery, derived from the Latin Bulgarus (Búlgaro), originally applied to a group of Bulgarian heretics who were falsely accused of sodomy in the Middle Ages, was considered an ‘abominable crime’ and a ‘gross indecency’, and it was even legally punished since it was defined as a sexual offence in the Criminal Amendment Act of 1835, as we have already seen.
The adjective ‘inverted’ and the noun ‘invert’ were also coined in the nineteenth century with the clear connotation of moving away from the heterosexual archetype. Presumably, these words are first found in English in the book Sexual Inversion (1897), written by the doctor and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis, in collaboration with the homosexual writer John Addington Symonds, who used them also in his correspondence with other writers, Walt Whitman among them.
If we continue with Partridge’s dictionary, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1961), we notice that the number of entries used to refer to homosexuals increases notably. We find 117 terms, and again many of them are to be found in the other two previous dictionaries. Nonetheless, there are some of them that call our attention. In this dictionary, for the first time, we find nasty words highlighting disgusting aspects, probably with an ironic meaning. This is the case of terms like ‘arse king’, ‘arse party’, ‘do a brown’, etc.
The female aspect of male homosexuality is emphasised by the use of terms like ‘daffodil’ or ‘petal’, which clearly allude to the delicate and fragile nature of women, and, at the same time, many women’s names are also included, most of them obsolete, as we have already seen, but Partridge’s dictionary includes terms like ‘camp’, ‘queen’ or ‘queer’, still in force today.
Finally, in my own Dictionary of Euphemisms and Dysphemisms in English Erotica with Spanish Equivalents, the number of entries (665 terms) is huge, and it is from this dictionary that most of the examples we have seen in the thematic fields have been taken.
4. Social analysis
From the lexicographic analysis carried out, it follows that homosexuality is a complex phenomenon from a social and sociological point of view. We have analysed lots of terms that homosexuals have been called throughout history, most of them with pejorative connotations. It is not illogical therefore to see these terms as a reflection of rejection of homosexuality by society in general. Nobody can deny, however, that there are signs that a change of attitude of society towards homosexuality is taking place nowadays. In contrast with the predominant intolerant attitude till the 19th c., we can venture to say that tolerance begins to show in the 20th century. This new attitude can be exemplified in the following words by Kenneth Walker, the famous American sexologist, in his The Physiology of Sex, published in 1940: “...If none of us can pride ourselves on being a hundred per cent man or a hundred per cent woman, what right have we to stigmatize as monstrous those in whom confusion is revealed more clearly than in us. Full sexual differentiation is comparatively rare...” But this view is far from being new. Freud had already asserted at the beginning of the 20th c. that “humans were by nature bisexual.” Anyhow, Freud’s position on homosexuality has been said to be contradictory: though affirming that “it was nothing to be ashamed of”, he also called it at times “a form of sexual deviance.”
Also worth noting is the enormous explosion of terms we have witnessed after the first decades of the twentieth century to refer to this collective. Many of them have become obsolete, but many are still current, and some have gone through changes, the most significant of all and the most relevant to our social analysis, being ‘gay’.
‘Gay’, from the French gai (alegre), was used in the 17th century with the meaning of wanton or promiscuous (Shakespeare used it in this sense), and it was mainly applied to the world of prostitution: gay woman, gay girl, gay wench, gay piece and gay bit were all terms used for a prostitute; a gay man was a whoremonger; and a gay house, a brothel. But around 1935, it began to be used with the meaning of homosexual, probably as an abbreviation of geycat,
underworld and prison sl. for a homosexual boy, companion of an older one, and
now it is firmly established in the English language and adopted by most
languages as a sort of international word. The term is not considered offensive
by anybody and is accepted without reserves by homosexuals themselves. US
Another example is the word ‘queer’. “This term began to be used with the meaning of ‘strange’, ‘odd’ in the 1930s. In the 1970s it became outdated, but later, in the 1980s, the gay activists began to use ‘queer’ to allude to themselves in a kind of rebellious attitude against those who discriminate them”.
In parallel with this proliferation of terms used to refer to homosexuality, homosexuals’ lives have changed and social acceptance has evolved, but it is not a finished fight for this collective.
Aliaga and García Cortés, two militant homosexuals, authors of Identidad y Diferencia sobre
la Cultura Gay
en España, talk about the importance of ‘coming out’ to change society’s
conception of their being ‘deviant’ or ‘perverted’. If more and more gay men declare
their condition publicly, more and more heterosexual people will understand
that every homosexual is different from another, and these differences show in
traits of character, physical appearance, and different behaviour and aims in
‘Different’ is thus the key word that highlights that diversity in all its complexity and variety. Militant homosexuals claim a different way to live and to live sex, an aim which has its precedent in the ‘alternate lifestyle’, which women belonging to the ‘flapper’ movement pursued in the 1920s, when they cut their hair and skirts short, as a symbol of freedom from oppression of their old way of living.
But language can be cruel indeed, especially with those who play the passive, weaker role in any group. It does not matter what the different laws say about equality. It is true that many laws have been recently passed in Western countries which have given homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals as far as marriage, adoption or civil rights are concerned. Nevertheless, what is really difficult to obtain is the acceptance of these rights by those who are not tolerant and have not developed an open-mindedness that allows them to accept others who are simply different.
“Very few things reflect as clearly as language the attitudes and ideology of society, and this fact becomes more apparent when the speaker refers to a minority group that is considered deprived and stigmatised, if not chased, as in the case of homosexuals” and, in effect, our lexicographical and historical analysis confirms that the terms used in the past to refer to homosexuals, such as ‘sodomite’, ‘abnormal’, ‘deviate’, ‘pervert’, ’degenerate’, etc., practically all with derogative connotations, clearly indicate a rejection of them by our Western society.
In the 20th c., however, new terms, such as ‘different’, ‘alternate lifestyle’ and, especially ‘gay’, begin to be used, pointing out to a change of attitude towards homosexuality. From being considered a crime, a perversion or even an illness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has become another option that runs parallel with heterosexuality, especially since the second half of the twentieth century.
At the same time, that change of attitude has greatly contributed to the openness with which male homosexuals are beginning to behave. But, how significant are these changes in terms of social acceptance and integration of homosexuals in a heterosexual society? There are indeed aspects in which a transformation can be appreciated in the way homosexuals are regarded nowadays by our Western society, but there are certain circles in which this collective is still excluded. Sadly enough, there are still a vast number of terms that represent the world of ‘gay-bashing’. Homosexuals, like many other minorities, are still the victims of stigmatization and mockery by a part of heterosexual society, especially ‘gay bashers’.
True that laws bring about big changes, but moral and social transformation takes much longer, and all groups in a position of power take advantage of minority groups using language as a means of despising and degrading them. Anyway, allow me to finish on a note of optimism: there’s hope that as the 21st c. moves forward prejudices against homosexuals will disappear once and for all.
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