Macquarie Dictionary Blog: Archives
Usage of the word 'gay' by the younger generation
May 09, 2014
In the light of the current discussion of the meaning of the word ‘gay’ and our ever-evolving language this article from our archives may be of interest.
From the archives 10/09/2010
James Valentine raised the point this week that when children use words like 'gay' (meaning 'uncool') and 'retarded' (also meaning 'uncool') they don't mean anything hurtful by it. They don't associate 'gay' with 'homosexual' when they use it to describe clothes or a movie. And they don't associate 'retarded' with 'of limited mental ability' when they use to describe what they had for dinner. Isn't this just language change? Should you try to do anything about it? Could you do anything even if you wanted to?
Susan Butler responded: Children's language is essentially spoken language where a word's history and etymology have no current relevance. The word means what it means among their peers. If the older generation step in to say that it means something else, something hurtful, they will be frankly disbelieving.The least that they would do is adopt a more cautious style in front of their elders and betters since they have learnt that the word will upset them, but they will continue to speak as they normally do with their friends.
If you wanted them to change their speech habits you would have to produce someone with influence over their generation to send that message. At the moment the only people who get upset are the people they are most likely to ignore.
Listeners commented that fashionable words for good and bad change from one generation to the next - they used to be 'rank' and 'unco' for 'not good', and 'choice' for 'good'. Now they are 'bad' for 'good', 'mad' for 'good'. And 'retard' has been shortened to 'tard' which makes its origin even more obscure.
The view was also expressed that innocence is no defence. A word like 'retarded' can still be hurtful and so children should be taught to take the feelings of others into account and stop using it.
What do you think?
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