Changing language

Kate Smith, a Changing Attitude trustee and the person responsible for the transformation of our web site three years ago, has a letter published in this week’s Church of England Newspaper.

Sir, When in Emma, Jane Austen described academies where young women were sent to be ‘screwed out of health and into vanity’ she little guessed how crucially and completely the meaning of her verb would change over the next 200 years, so that an innocent sentence now causes unintended giggling among most teenagers studying her work.

Contemporaries of Austen would understand an ‘enthusiast’ negatively as a ‘dangerous radical’ not positively in the modern sense of ‘someone who is very keen on a hobby’. The ‘fandangles’ and ‘bluestockings’ of her era survive in the language, but only in a metaphorical sense.

More recently ‘babe’ has become pretty much obsolete as ‘a very young child’ but flourishes as ‘an attractive young woman’. Yoof talk with approval about things that are ‘sick’ and ‘wikkid’. And in the last decade even such universal words as ‘friend’, ‘like’ and ‘tweet’ have gained new nuances, and may eventually have new primary meanings because of the huge influence of social media.

So in short, language changes over time, and it has always been part of its playfulness that some words change their meaning. These alterations don’t generally attract ‘why oh why’ type letters to the press, with one class of exceptions: words that relate to the growing visibility and acceptance of LGBT people. John M Hughes’ letter deploring the changing implications of ‘gay’ and ‘pink’ is only the latest example of a very tired, but sadly not obsolete, line that has been trotted out by conservatives for at least 30 years.

There are two possibilities here. Perhaps all conservative evangelicals have the same strange educational gap that makes them honestly believe that word meanings never alter except when crafty homosexuals have been at their dirty work. The remedy I suggest for this is to give half an hour each week to [Stephen] Fry’s English Delight on BBC Radio 4, which will introduce to them to the joyful diversity and change that has for centuries been inherent in their language.

The other possibility is that Mr Hughes and his friends know perfectly well that words shift in meaning, but only object to the ones that imply the visibility and acceptance of gay people. In that case, what needs to be fixed is not modern English usage, but their own homophobia.

Kate Smith

Kate was responding to a letter from John M Hughes published the previous week.


Sir, Permit me please to express my indignation at the way in which the so-called ‘gay brigade’, a small minority of no more than five per cent of the population, has managed over the past two or three decades to manoeuvre not only a change in public consciousness but also in the meaning of some of the very words of our common language.

Take the word ‘gay’: les than 50 years ago it meant ‘carefree and light-hearted’; so why has it been commandeered to mean something completely different? Likewise the word ‘pink’: ‘…to make the boys wink’, as we used to say, meaning a colour favoured by females; but now we hear talk of the ‘pink pound’ or the ‘pink vote’. Even the appellation ‘homo-sexual’ is not entirely correct, being more accurately rendered as ‘homoerotic’.

As for the term ‘sexual orientation’, this is merely a myth, representative of a confusion of categories. As Dr Peter May pointed out in your pages several years ago, there is no such category: only sexual behaviour can be observed and quantified (vide Masters and Johnson), from which data personal preferences may perhaps be inferred; though these are by no means stable, as the instance of the former Bishop of New Hampshire illustrates, who, previous to his sexual ‘conversion’, had a wife and family.

Then what is the word ‘homophobia’ supposed to mean? Clearly a fear of something – either ‘man’ (as in ‘homo sapiens’) or ‘the same’ (as in ‘homologous’). But what is there to be afraid of, in those people (and their activities) who call themselves ‘gay’? To label someone or some action as ‘homophobic’ is both misleading and demeaning, as it is very unlikely to be true.

Lastly, there is the time-honoured word ‘marriage’, which for centuries past the world over has meant just one thing: the authorised sexual partnership of a man and a woman, usually with intent to have children. Yet our present government has recently seen fit to redefine the word, without consultation, in such a way that any single person may marry any other such, regardless of gender or purpose.

By what ‘authority’ has the ‘gay brigade’ brought about such unnecessary and unwelcome changes, so as to impose them on the remaining ninety five percent of the population? This seems to me like ‘democracy’ turned upside down.

John M Hughes


  1. says

    John Hughes’ letter was not focused on mere changes in language, but rather, as he says, those formal changes that: ‘redefine the word, without consultation’.

    Marriage defines an institution. So do words like citizen, parent, the Queen. The legal force of these terms demands a shared social meaning that Kate Smith’s contrasting examples don’t require.

    Of course, the variability of meaning worked in favour of Messrs Hall and Preddy, when the judge decided in reference to the OED that B&Bs, though not explicitly mentioned, fell into the commercial category of ‘accommodation in a hotel, boarding house or similar establishment’, rather than following Regulation 6(1) that says: ‘regulation 4 does not apply to anything done by a person as a participant in arrangements under which he (for reward or not) takes into his home’.

    In contrast, for derisory comparison, Kate Smith has chosen words that do not define institutions and may therefore have variable meaning without incurring a legal impact on others.

    • Kate says

      Well, I think I’ll decline a trip on the carousel of how a straight couple’s marriage will be altered by recent legislation (I think “not at all” about covers it for all the straight couples I’ve asked). But there’s a more interesting point about consent in changing language. John M Hughes seems to think that both legislative and linguistic change are the work of a tiny minority imposing on everyone else: when of course what’s actually happening is a much larger group of people of all sexualities agreeing to these shifts. No piece of pro-gay legislation has ever been passed without a vast number of straight people voting in its favour.

      Similarly with language. You do sometimes get small interest groups trying to impose a particular phrase on a wider population – but that tends not to work unless it’s in line with the zeitgeist. Look at the Macdonalds import ‘Have a nice day’. Yes, it’s now understood to be associated with their brand, but it comes with a heavy dose of irony when used in the wider culture, which sees through all too well to the corporate soullessness (and minimum wage pay) which lies underneath. Macdonalds have entirely failed to get ‘have a nice day’ to have the resonance ‘we think your business is lovely’ with consumers.

      If gay/equal/same-sex marriage was similarly an outrageous government imposition on an unwilling populace, by now we would have seen alternative ‘folk’ terms emerging – or those phrases being subverted by sarcasm. This has very noticeably failed to happen – your average person might talk about ‘gay marriage’ where a slightly more politically correct person would say ‘equal marriage’ – but the overall picture is that both the language and the legislation have been accepted.

      Compare that with some of the attempts at language engineering that have come from conservative Christians around sexuality: no-one outside a tiny group now uses ‘same-sex attraction’ and their clinging to ‘homosexual’ as it falls into disuse in wider society is also telling. A few weeks ago someone else in the letters page of CEN (well – might have been the same chap, can’t remember) suggested that Christians should go around referring to ‘so called gay marriage’. I think I can totally guarantee that won’t catch on either.

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