WHAT Group Won’t Accept Changing the Definition of a Word?   2 comments

Vince Vaughn and Hollywood are not the enemies of gay people. The things a character says in a movie do not necessarily represent what that person or film endorses. Example: actors who have played Hitler in Hollywood movies. Here’s what Vince Vaughn’s character says in a recently edited movie trailer.

“Electric cars are gay. I mean, not ‘homosexual’ gay but ‘my parents are chaperoning the dance’ gay.”

Now, that’s not comic genius, it’s 4th grade-calibre writing. It deserves to be criticized and perhaps even removed from the movie, but by virtue of it not being very clever or funny, not because it’s “offensive”. Not only is film protected by the First Amendment, giving a director the right to put as banal of a joke as he would like into a movie, there’s no good reason for this particular joke to be treated as controversial.

A word can be used to refer to one of its definitions exclusively without connoting anything about any of its other possible definitions. I can think of a “sack” of potatoes without thinking about a quarterback being tackled behind the line of scrimmage and vice versa. How is calling something about which a person has a low opinion of “gay” offensive when it’s explicitly stated that it’s”not homosexual gay”? All the character is doing is acknowledging that there are multiple definitions of a word, indicating which definition he is NOT referring to, and providing a valid context of the definition he intends. He says how he doesn’t mean it, specifically not talking about homosexuals.

Lots of words have multiple meanings. Many meanings change over time. “Gay” didn’t always refer to homosexuals and indeed, it’s often the case today that individuals say “gay” without intending to describe happiness at all. Theoretically, is it inconceivable that it may not refer to homosexuals again? Why does “homosexual” have to be the terminal definition of “gay” when it wasn’t the original meaning and we all know that definitions change? “Gay” can be used without referring to “happy,” but it can’t conceivably be used without referring to “gay”? What?

Say there’s a word that a group of people really really wanted to change the definition of. Just arbitrarily, let’s say that word is “marriage.” Now, since that group of people strongly believes that the long-standing definition of this word needs to be changed, they demand the change be made, no matter who disagrees (even if it’s a majority of a state’s voters). Now suppose that same group of people and its supporters didn’t accept any change in definition of another word (say, “gay”) that used to describe them, but no longer does in many contexts. Does that seem consistent, or double standardized? Who, exactly, gets control of how the definitions of words change?

It seems like the battle over the word “marriage” and whether it can be legitimately be applied to homosexual couples stems around whether or not the definition of a word can be changed to fit a new social construction. If it can, which homosexual advocacy groups argue, then the meaning of “gay” can change too. Lots of people who say it and mean “stupid, lame, not desirable” don’t intend it to also connote “homosexual.” Definitions change over time, often leaving behind previous meanings. “Soda” used to refer to “saltwort,” a root used to make soap. I don’t think that when I’m drinking a Coke (I don’t even think that when I’m drinking a root beer).

I'm Japanese. Do I demand this product be taken off shelves? No. It doesn't have anything to do with my race.

A counter-argument we often hear is that sexual orientation is like race or religion or personal identity. If it has some similarities, it does not deserve to be treated in exactly the same way. The Supreme Court ruled that homosexual conduct is protected by the right to privacy…go tell a black person his right not to be discriminated against comes from the right to privacy. There’s nothing private about belonging to a race.

People say, “Why do you think it’s okay to say ‘gay’ and mean ‘stupid’? How about if I said that’s so ‘(insert your race)’ and meant ‘stupid’?” That question seems to not recognize that a word can have multiple meanings and utilize one without triggering the others. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem if someone used a word that was spelled and pronounced just like my race to refer to stupidity if it was clear that the definition intended was the one synonymous with ‘stupid’. Why be offended if the offense in question is clearly not referring to me?

Semantics is a tricky game. The inertia of definitions and how to bring about change in them is not widely understood or agreed upon. Most people don’t understand it at all. Definitions do change, though. And there can be a clear distinction between old definitions and new definitions with no overlap. Being offended just to make an issue out of something trivial or for attention doesn’t gain sympathy from other people. Pointing to anecdotal evidence in the form of recent news stories makes it seem like an emotional, not rational response. Being overly sensitive, emotionally prone, and irrational when these characteristics are activated are not stereotypes all groups would find it in their best interest to reinforce.

It also won’t be viewed positively for one group to claim sole power to decide when a definition changes and when it doesn’t, deciding arbitrarily to boot. Society has selected the word “gay” to take on a new definition, divorced from its homosexual meaning, but not restored to positive meaning as with the erstwhile “happy” meaning. Even though the modern “stupid/lame” definition of “gay” isn’t positive, it does not trigger the “homosexual” meaning in many people in many cases. An actor portraying a character who uses the word “gay” in a negative but explicitly not homosexual way is not a valid controversy. Vince Vaughn wasn’t trying to be offensive and doesn’t need to be dodging wrenches thrown at him. I’m sure he’d let the complainers not dodge…[yeah].


Posted October 14, 2010 by Wada in Uncategorized

2 responses to “WHAT Group Won’t Accept Changing the Definition of a Word?

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  1. Pingback: World Wide News Flash

  2. i want it

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