Debating the meaning of “gay”

  • March 5, 2013

You usually don’t expect to wander into a discussion on semantic change when you attend a municipal meeting, but that’s exactly what was on tap when Washington City Council convened Monday night.

Mayor Brenda Davis correctly took Councilman Matt Staniszewski to task for using a test alert of the city’s transit system to send out the following email message: “Alert: This is a test. Brian is gay.” Staniszewski lamely countered that it was in reference to a college friend and that, in this case, he was not necessarily saying that his friend was homosexual, or using it in a pejorative sense, “when we all know that the word means happy.”

Well, yes, once upon a time, people would say that someone who was in a happy-go-lucky, heel-clicking mood was “gay.” But the last time you would have heard someone use “gay” in reference to a joyous frame of mind would probably have been somewhere around the time Liberace was drawing 10,000 pieces of fan mail per week. Ask anyone on the street what “gay” means in 2013, and they’ll respond, “homosexual.”

Can we assume that Staniszewski peppers his everyday conversation with other words and phrases that have fallen from fashion. Does he “rap” with his pals when he carries on a conversation with them? Do they pay for their dinner with “bread”? Does he describe a fun-loving friend as a “bully”? People once did.

Nonetheless, there is one simple word that adequately describes Staniszewski’s actions that never changes meaning and never goes out of style.



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