As I have written, language both reflects and creates reality. Language does change: new words are added to the lexicon, new meanings are adopted, some words drop out due to disuse, it can be a natural, organic process….except when it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a declaration of war, without the declaration part, sort of like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. How can you distinguish between language change as a natural evolution vs. the pursuit of an agenda? The latter usually features persecution of those who prefer the traditional meaning. Sometimes the persecution is violent and physical, as when Stalin changed the meaning of Kulak from “a peasant in Russia wealthy enough to own a farm and hire labor” to anyone who resisted Stalin’s forced collectivization (millions were arrested, exiled, or killed). Other times, the persecution is verbal, though in the
social media age, refusal to use non-binary pronouns for transsexuals–the crime of misgendering–can lead to massive cyberbullying, doxing and, with YouTube, demonetization. That’s why I call agenda-based language change war. It is!
A brief history of the word “gay” will demonstrate. During the 19th century the word gay referred to a woman who was a prostitute and a gay man was someone who slept with a lot of women, often prostitutes. Also at this time, the phrase “gay it” meant to have sex. With these new definitions, the original meanings of “carefree”, “joyful”, and “bright and showy” were still around; so the word was not exclusively used to refer to prostitutes or a promiscuous man. Those were just accepted definitions, along with the other meanings of the word.
Around the 1920s and 1930s, however, the word started to have a new meaning. In terms of the sexual meaning of the word, a “gay man” no longer just meant a man who had sex with a lot of women, but now started to refer to men who had sex with other men. There was also another word “gey cat” at this time which meant a homosexual boy. By 1955, the word gay “officially” acquired the new added definition of meaning homosexual males. Gay men themselves seem to have been behind the driving thrust for this new definition as they felt (and many still do), that “homosexual” is much too clinical, sounding like a disorder. As such, it was common amongst the gay community to refer to one another as “gay” decades before this was a commonly known definition (reportedly homosexual men were calling one another gay as early as the 1920s). At this time, homosexual women were referred to as lesbians, not gay. Although women could still be called gay if they were prostitutes as that meaning had not yet 100% disappeared. Since then, gay, meaning homosexual male, has steadily driven out all the other definitions that have floated about through time and of course also has gradually begun supplementing the word ‘lesbian’ as referring to women who are homosexual.
Male homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967. Because even mentioning someone was a homosexual was so offensive at the time in England, people who were thought to be gay were referred to as “sporty” with girls and “artistic” for boys. Bringing Up Baby in 1938 was the first film to use the word gay to mean homosexual. Cary Grant, in one scene, ended up having to wear a lady’s feathery robe. When another character asks about why he is wearing that, he responds an ad-libbed line “Because I just went gay”. At the time, mainstream audiences didn’t get the reference so the line was thought popularly to have meant something to the effect of “I just decided to be carefree.”
This brief history is mostly from Wikipedia, but note the phrase “gay, meaning homosexual male, has steadily driven out all the other definitions that have floated about through time…” I notice constantly how people who find homosexuality sinful or distasteful STILL use gay almost automatically, like in gay marriage. New meanings don’t “drive out” traditional meanings, rather most people become lazy and find it easier just to follow the crowd…..off the cliff.