Group-of-people pejoratives, part 1: “gay”

This is part 1 in a planned series of posts about terms that are used as generic pejoratives but that also just happen to be terms referring to a group of people.

I’m gonna start with what I think is one of the easier ones to discuss: gay.

These days, when an American under age 30 or so says “That’s so gay,” they don’t generally mean anything related to homosexuality. They just mean it’s bad. They mean they don’t like it.

A couple years ago, I heard a co-worker (who I think was in his mid-twenties) proclaim, “This website is so gay!” He didn’t mean anything homophobic by it; to him, that was a generic insult.

I cringed every time I heard him say something like that, which he did once or twice a week. After around the half-dozenth time, I summoned up my courage, and I stepped around the cube divider, and I told him, “It makes me uncomfortable when you use gay as an insult.” He was apologetic and embarrassed, and after that I never heard him say it again.

I’m guessing here, but I don’t think it had ever occurred to him that the word gay, meaning “bad,” had anything to do with the word gay, meaning “homosexual.” I think to a lot of people, those are two separate words that just happen to be spelled and pronounced the same.

But I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. I think one evolved from the other; gay has for some time been used as a taunt and an insult against kids who behave in stereotypically gay ways (which has been considered bad), and over time it’s come to refer to generic badness.

That kind of evolution of meaning happens in language all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with it per se; and it’s fine for words to have more than one meaning. But when the term in question is still in use as a non-derogatory self-adopted label for a less-privileged group of people, then it seems to me that using that term as a generic pejorative is problematic.

To be clear: I’m not primarily talking about the use of gay that means “that’s reminiscent of something stereotypically associated with homosexuals.” If I flop my wrist around while talking and someone says, “Hey, man, that looks kinda gay”—well, that’s problematic, and if they don’t mean it as a compliment then it’s probably somewhere between ignorant and homophobic, and it invites a comeback like “And is there something wrong with that, girlfriend?”; but it’s not using the term as a generic pejorative. The generic use is calling something gay without any intended reference to homosexuality.

One could argue that the generic use is better; at least it’s less overtly homophobic. But I’m bothered by both uses—one because it’s homophobic, the other because to at least some listeners, it’s hard to make the separation. If I were a kid who’d figured out that I was homosexual but hadn’t told anyone yet, and if I constantly heard the word gay used pejoratively, I don’t think it would help much to tell myself “they don’t mean it like that.”

I know that the word gay has changed in meaning before; when it first started to be used to mean “homosexual,” there was a lot of pushback. People expressed great sadness that such a lovely carefree happy cheerful word was being taken over by Those Homosexuals, and I have little sympathy for that position. But I don’t think the current shift in use of the word is the same thing. Before, the word didn’t refer to a group of people; now it does. To me, that makes an enormous difference.

So what it comes down to for me is that when people use the word gay in a pejorative way, it makes me uncomfortable. Whether they intend it or not, it sounds to me like they’re equating homosexuality with badness. I obviously can’t stop anyone from using the word that way, but I would prefer that people choose other terms from English’s vast trove of derogatory words.

Some resources:

  • So what can you say instead of gay when you want to express dislike? There are lots of options. Annoying. Ridiculous. Goofy. Foolish. Pathetic. Bad. Awful. Ugly. Uncool. Trivial. And so on.
  • In a 5-minute Ignite video, Ash Beckham explains the problem.
  • A study suggests that “The more respondents were uncomfortable around feminine men, the more likely they were to report saying [‘That’s so gay’].”
  • There was a Dykes to Watch Out For strip (#368) that addressed this issue—but it was problematic too, for reasons I’ll discuss later in this series.

On a side note, other gay-related terms may undergo similar shifts. For example, in that same group at work, I once heard a co-worker (also in her twenties) refer to someone as a “pansy.” An out bi colleague of theirs was there that day (he wasn’t around when the other guy used gay pejoratively), and he told her what pansy means, and she was not just embarrassed, but horrified. She was an ally, and certainly hadn’t intended any homophobic insult; she just had no idea that the word specifically insulted gays.

Speaking of other words: I have a whole list of other words to discuss in this series, words that both refer to a group of people and are used derogatorily. (Sometimes generic, sometimes not.) They get harder after this; a couple of them are words that I used to say, and about which I used to say “well, but this is a different word, it doesn’t mean the same thing.” But I gradually learned that they were harmful to the groups in question, and I’ve stopped saying them.

I’m guessing that some of y’all will want to talk about other such words in comments on this entry, and I’m not going to stop you; but fwiw, I’m choosing my ordering of discussion carefully because I think it’ll be easier to discuss some of the words if we lay the groundwork with others first. In particular, I think that, among my friends, gay is likely to be one of the easiest to agree on, so I’m starting here.

(Wrote most of this back in February, didn’t post it ’til now.)

15 Responses to “Group-of-people pejoratives, part 1: “gay””

  1. jacob

    Do we really think that people who are using “gay” as a generic pejorative are actually using it in a way that is unconnected to the homophobic meaning? I’m skeptical. I don’t hear it used meaning generically “bad”, I don’t think, but bad in a way that a person who is homophobic would think that gay folks are bad, if that makes sense.

    I mean, I can’t imagine someone who, say, dislikes a movie because it has too many explosions and car chases saying that it’s “gay”, but I can imagine someone using that word about a movie they disliked, say, because it had too many scenes of flower-arranging.

    At any rate, of course I do agree that it’s a problem to use “gay” as a generic insult. I’m just skeptical that this kind of usage really is disconnected from homophobia (although I’ll accept that for some folks who use it that way, the connection may not be conscious).

    • Jed

      Yeah, I do think it’s largely unconnected to the homophobic meaning. I’ve seen/heard people say that bad haircuts (not femme ones, but awkward/geeky/uncool ones) are “so gay,” or ugly cars, or all sorts of other things. I’m not sure what made the website my colleague mentioned “gay,” but my impressive was that it had bad user-interface design that made it hard to use.

      So I don’t know whether it can be used in all derisive contexts; not sure about your explosions/car-chases example. Would be curious to find out what specific things people do use it for; I kind of suspect it’s mostly on the ugly/awkward/uncool spectrum. But it’s definitely not limited to stuff that’s stereotypically homosexual.

  2. tcornes

    I agree with Jacob. Gay in a pejorative sense not only means effeminate but also something non-gender conforming, wrong, unnatural, awkward, out of place, which is how homophobes feel about LBQTs. Gay can refer to lesbians and bis too. And in general, I think the etymology of a word can’t be divorced from its meaning since people learn words from other people in spoken or written form.

  3. irilyth

    “Pansy” is an interesting example, because it sort of works as an insult if you take it literally, i.e. if what you mean is “a frail and delicate flower”. (As opposed to, say, “don’t be such a pussy”, when there’s not any particular reason to think that women’s genitals (or cats, if you mean *that* literally :^) are more frail and delicate than men’s (or dogs).)

  4. Vardibidian

    Having grown up in an extremely homophobic community, I can vouch for the use of ‘gay’ as a general term of deprecation that is not always related to weakness or effeminacy. I have heard it referring to, f’r’ex, an umpire making an unpopular call, or as likely the call itself. I’m trying to think of other sports-related specific incidences; I’m pretty sure I heard the half-and-half A’s/Giants cap called ‘gay’, but I suppose there’s a barely conceivable homosexual reference there.

    Anyway, I do agree with Jacob that there is a set of heteronormative things that are unlikely to be called ‘gay’ (as a pejorative). I would say the term gets used to refer to things that are weak/effeminate/feminine/odd, and then things that are if you will heteroneutral, but less likely things that are specifically associated with heteronormative masculinity–a motorcycle that is too big or too loud may be bad, but it wouldn’t likely be called gay, whereas a motorcycle that is too small or too quiet is more likely to be called gay. Or was, in that time and place, anyway.

    I would associate this, by the way, with some dialogue in a couple of British gangster films of the last decade or so, in which ‘gay’ specifically means ‘weak’ (f’r’ex, light beer is ordered at a bar as ‘gay beer’, matter-of-factly, and provided matter-of-factly by the bartender), whereas men who like topping men (or raping men as a top) are of course not ‘gay’ at all. This leads to the line “fucking women is for poofs”–a great, disturbing, horrible hilarious line, which is probably very nearly on topic.


    • Jed

      Vardibidian, re “less likely things that are specifically associated with heteronormative masculinity”—Good and useful distinction; thanks. I would be very interested to hear whether anyone’s studied, from a descriptivist linguistics perspective, the nuances of what kinds of things do and don’t get called “gay.”

      Debbie: Interesting! “Jew” is on my list to get to later, but I hadn’t heard or hadn’t remembered this story of yours. And I’ve now done a search and found that there are other people who say that the phrase “chewed me down” is unrelated to pejorative use of “Jew.” That’s fascinating. I wonder whether “chewed me down” began as a mishearing/eggcorn, or whether it began as an intentional euphemism to avoid the original phrase.

      blotter-paper: I’m surprised and impressed that you haven’t heard it since high school. To answer your question, yep, it’s very common these days in a lot of places, including during and after college. Most of the recent articles I’ve seen about the phrase focus primarily on college students.

      Your comment reminded me to mention a point that I didn’t address in my post: There are a fair number of GLBT people who say “that’s so gay.” One could argue (you’re not arguing this, but one could) that it’s inappropriate for me to ask them not to say it. And I do agree that there are derogatory terms that it’s okay for people who are part of the group being denigrated to say; for example, for a long time “queer” was an insult when used by most straight people, but a term of pride when used by most GLBT people. But I would say this is a different thing, because again of the distancing from its other meaning. When gay people say “that’s so gay” meaning “that’s bad,” I would argue that that’s not reclaiming the term, that’s buying into the general pejorative use of it.

  5. debbie.notkin

    You say you’re going on to other terms, but this piece made me think of when a friend of mine used “jewed me down” in my presence. I called him on it, and he insisted that he had said “chewed me down,” and that it was completely, utterly, in every conceivable way unrelated to “jewed me down” and in fact referred to something like an animal chewing on something.

    He told me this every time I saw him for months, if not years.

    I suspect that, as you are discussing with “gay,” he wasn’t making the connection in his head to the anti-Semitic term. And he may even have said “chewed.” But he wasn’t able to understand where what he said came from, or why it mattered. Like your co-worker, however, I bet he never said it again.


    Do people still say this? We used to use it all the time in high school and middle school (and those of us who turned out to be gay were just as likely [maybe more likely] to use it =) But I’ve literally never heard it used in this way since going to college (I’m now 27).

  7. Jed

    Thanks for all the comments!

    Thida: I’m sorry to say that I disagree with you. I don’t think that most people who say “that’s so gay” are thinking “that’s as odd and out-of-place as someone who’s gay.” And although I think etymology is important and can be instructive, I think words can and do drift very far from their earlier meanings. For example, when people say these days that a budget or a population was “decimated,” they almost never mean that 1/10 of it was chosen at random to be killed; the word doesn’t mean that any more. …For that matter, when people say these days that a homosexual person is gay, they almost never mean that the person is happy or cheerful.

    Irilyth: Sorry to say that I also disagree, at least somewhat, with you; I’m not clear on why a pansy would be more frail and delicate than other flowers. Wikipedia gives a lot of other associations for pansies. Certainly different flowers have different associations (shrinking violet, lily-livered, etc), but I think the reason we have the insult “pansy” is entirely because of the word’s association with homosexuality.

    …Which sounds like I’m contradicting my above disagreement with Thida, but I guess what I’m really saying in both cases is that I think the derivation of the pejorative use of the term is interesting and relevant, but isn’t necessarily the main controlling factor in how people use the term in everyday speech.

  8. irilyth

    > I’m not clear on why a pansy would be more frail and delicate than other flowers.

    Oh, sure; I just meant as compared to other non-flower things. “Don’t be such a flower” would work as well.

    Mostly, I think I wasn’t really aware that “pansy” was more like a synonym for “gay” than like a synonym for “wimp”. Using *gay* as a synonym for “wimp” seems obviously problematic, much like “pussy”. Using “pansy” as a synonym for “wimp” doesn’t. But using “pansy” as a synonym for “gay” does, so.

    (Also, for all I knew until five seconds ago, “wimp” was a synonym for “gay”. Wiktionary thinks not, though. Contrast with “wuss” or “wussy”, which I think of as just a euphemism for “pussy”.)

    • Jed

      Irilyth: Interesting! Yeah, my colleague intended it (iIrc) as basically a synonym for “wimp,” so it sounds like the meaning may be drifting in that direction. But yeah, it very definitely has traditionally specifically been an insult toward gay men.

      Agreed about “wimp” and “wuss.”

  9. danima

    Debbie and Jed, could you help me out with some context? I’ve never heard of the phrase “jew me down” (much less the apparent derivative “chew me down”), and I have only the most general, appalled guesses as to what it might mean. However, I hear all over the place the phrase “chew me out,” with essentially the same meaning and metaphorical kernel as “rip me a new one.” Are these the same phrases, or expressions with different origins and meanings that ended up sounding similar?

    • Jed

      Yep, various idiomatic uses of “Jew” have to do with being cheap, driving a hard bargain, demanding unreasonable amounts of money, charging exorbitant interest, or otherwise behaving badly around money. (I’m not certain I’ve seen all of those examples; I just intend this as illustrative of a range of meanings.)

      See also Jew (me) out of something.

      “Chew me down” presumably began either as a euphemism (similar to a minced oath, though perhaps not quite the same thing) or an eggcorn.

      I don’t know for sure about the origin of “chew out” meaning “scold,” but I would guess that the “chew” in that phrase has to do with moving your mouth to talk, as in “chew the fat.” My dictionary lists first recorded use as 1943, but oddly doesn’t give etymology.

      So I would be very surprised if “chew down” and “chew out” have any relation to each other, except inasmuch as the existence of one of them might have influenced the choice of verb for the other. But I’m talking through my hat; I don’t have any real evidence, and TSOR hasn’t turned anything up.

  10. irilyth matches what I had guessed, which is that it has to do with being cheap, possibly to an immoral extent, particularly when setting a price.

    I’ve only heard it actually spoken aloud to make a point, by someone who was on a crusade against using “gyp” to mean “rip off”.

  11. Vardibidian

    OED has its first use of “chew out” from 1948: A verbal admonishing from a superior would be recorded by the victim with ‘I just got eaten out’ or ‘I just got chewed out’. Tho’ there’s a 13th C ‘worry with reproaches’ use that seems similar to me.

    Jew as a verb meaning to drive a hard bargain, or haggle, or even cheat they have going back to 1825: We hope, for the honour and character of the state, that neither the legislature nor the people, will Jew the items of expence. It seems perhaps to have been an Americanism that spread back to England. It looks like was quite common in the late 19th C and kinda petered out after WWII (I wonder why), and by the mid-eighties I was surprised (and a little shocked) that someone actually did use it in conversation.



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