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Dictionaries don’t define the pejorative use of gay, but the term is used in common parlance. For example:

That’s so gay.

or

You’re gay.

Is there a way of establishing what gay means when used pejoratively?

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The slang usage of gay is offensive/ pejorative. Otherwise in formal English, what is "pejorative" of any meaning of the word? Neither sense is pejorative. –  Kris Jul 5 at 6:43
    
This is like asking whether there’s any way of establishing what any other pejorative means that has appropriated from a group and used as a general put down, like the n-word and many others. –  tchrist Jul 5 at 12:14
    
Obviously related. This, too, and many more. –  tchrist Jul 6 at 16:52

8 Answers 8

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Dictionaries don't define the pejorative use of gay

Some of them do:

  • Dictionary.com: Gay: "awkward, stupid, or bad; lame: This game is really gay.
  • Oxford Dictionaries: Gay: "Foolish, stupid, or unimpressive: he thinks the obsession with celebrity is totally gay."
  • Wiktionary: Gay (English): "Used to express dislike: lame, uncool, stupid: This game is gay; let’s play a different one. = I dislike this game; let’s play a different one."
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Anecdotally, growing up in the nineteen-eighties and nineties (in England and then the US), I perceived "gay" as an insult growing in popularity directly alongside the widening awareness of the concept of "gay" as an identity. I was acutely sensitive to the one due to my private identification with the other, and I am quite certain none of the kids I knew were using some hypothetical other tradition of the word.

They called things "gay" precisely because gay people were different and shameful, and because adults discouraged mention of the subject, putting the word into the category of "naughty" (and therefore enjoyable) words that covers sex, genitalia and bodily functions. Using the word in this way reinforced the negative connotations attached to gay people, and continues to do so even as diverse sexual identities become gradually more accepted.

Looking for separate explanations of the derogatory and descriptive senses of the word is misdirected; the referent is the same, it's just that the derogatory uses are attempts to hang disapproving connotations upon it.

UPDATE: here's a snapshot of the evolving popular meaning of "gay" in 1986.

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No, gay used pejoratively has no special meaning to distinguish it from any other slight meant to disparage and discredit those whom it refers to. Their only real “meaning” is to be mean. It’s just like calling something lame, which is casually insensitive to people who cannot walk or run easily.

In this way, this is just like any other slur based on race or national origin or religion or sex or disability physical or mental, or on anything else that the execrable dregs of humanity use against their fellow man.

I will not besmirch this site by enumerating a list of spiteful examples of these, but I’m sure countless many of the same bilious character come readily to mind once you try to think of some.

Such insults are nothing but base stigmatizations — rank put-downs, if you would — committed by xenophobic churls and others of equally low breeding, empathy, intellect, courtesy, and judgement.

Whether done in casual passing or as an active affront, every single one of these slurs is verbal violence but thinly veiled and summarily vile. They can be used as hate speech — and often are. Their intent is to dehumanize and sometimes even demonize those whom such speakers perceive to be “different” from themselves, and by extension inherently inferior from them.

That is their “meaning”.

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Have you got a source for this? –  dwjohnston Jul 5 at 3:47
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@dwjohnston Cripples can be lame people, and lame people can be cripples. So as soon as cripple became a taboo word, lame took on the job and then soon enough expanded into a general-purpose put-down. This is no different. –  tchrist Jul 5 at 5:41
    
I suspect the OP does not mean any of this at all. –  Kris Jul 5 at 6:40
    
What do you mean lame took on the job? Lame has always meant cripple, it might even predate cripple. –  Frank Jul 5 at 7:34
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@Frank I meant that lame took on the job of a put-down used on anything. You call something “lame” that you don’t like. It’s the same situation. –  tchrist Jul 5 at 11:57

When used as a pejorative, it can mean either "stereotypically homosexual" or "derisable" - it depends on the context, and the intent of the speaker.

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Anecdotally, I asked my kids after I heard them using it (about 10 years ago). They didn't really have a clear description except what I think is what used to be called "camp" behaviour. The origin may have been shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in which camp and somewhat OCD behaviour were a running joke.

They certainly did NOT mean it as being a slur on gay people.

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It has nothing to do with campness. It just means "bad", in the same way that "lame" just means bad and has nothing to do with physical disabilities. –  David Richerby Jul 5 at 14:28

The meaning of this sense of the word gay is; undesirable, inferior or unwelcome in a way comparable to how homosexuals are undesirable, inferior or unwelcome.

It's certainly possible to use the word in that sense without actually considering gay people to be undesirable, inferior or unwelcome, and someone using the term in that way is not necessarily homophobic—I've even heard gay people use it that way—though I wouldn't recommend it to those who prefer to be careful in their use of language, either.

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It usually doesn't mean anything except "gay" (homosexual), it just indicates that the person that uses the word believes this is a negative characteristic to hold.

Some sources do claim additional meanings however:

Slang: Often Disparaging and Offensive. awkward, stupid, or bad; lame:

-Dictionary.com

a derogative slang expression with a general meaning "pathetic, inferor"

-Wikipedia

For more examples of this type of word, see also:

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You're going to need to provide some kind of source material for this answer. –  dwjohnston Jul 5 at 2:11
    
To clarify, in your first sentence you mean 'homosexual'? –  dwjohnston Jul 5 at 2:16
    
@dwjohnston That's right, I'll edit that in for clarity. –  MrLore Jul 5 at 2:16
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I doubt that many people who use gay pejoratively actually dislike gay people. It has simply gone the way of words like lame and dumb: yes, they can refer to disabilities, but few people calling something lame intend to demean cripples. –  Anonym Jul 5 at 3:32
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Gay in the pejorative sense can be used about things that one would never realistically describe as homosexual. I've heard people use it about things like sodas (“Pepsi is so gay”) or policies (“Law enforcement cutbacks are so gay”). While I have heard some people humorously take this one step further and actually use homosexual instead of gay in this context, I've never heard anyone describing neither Pepsi nor police cutbacks as having actual homosexual tendencies. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 5 at 9:23

On the assumption that That's so gay and You're gay are not meant to mean That's so homosexual and You're homosexual there is a good possibility that the modern term gay is an antiphrasis or semantic shift of an existing definition of gay.

The word gay has been around for more than 700 years, only in the last 100 or so has it taken on an extra meaning of A [male] homosexual and only in the last 50 years has that become a well known definition.

OED1 has a definition of gay as Brilliantly good, excellent, fine. This seems to be a perfect fit for the current use of gay when applied to inanimate objects to mean not good, poor, rubbish when negated. OED1 does note that the usage is obsolete, but that doesn't mean it can't be used.

This is the same as bad meaning good, sick meaning excellent, wicked meaning wonderful. These inversions appear to come mostly from skateboarding slang and it's no surprise to me to find that the OED2 state the first mention of gay meaning Foolish, stupid, lame comes from a skate boarding magazine from the late 1970's.

Given that, in general, homosexuality is more accepted now than it has been for many years and that gay is the terminology preferred by the homosexual community (LBGT, Gay Pride etc), I find it hard to believe that expressing the gayness of an inanimate object, or a person, can be related to the meaning of gay for homosexual.

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I’m afraid you missed the point. They use gay as a “let’s call something a bad thing we don’t like” kind of put-down. It’s one of those passive things, like getting gypped out of a good deal, or jewed down. Are those acceptable? What about calling somebody the n-word just because we don’t like them, no matter the color of their skin? It happens; what does it “mean”? –  tchrist Jul 5 at 12:03
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Except that "jewed" and "gypped" are drawn from stereotypes of groups based on an imputed group characteristic or attribute. As "gay" is used in the OP, it has much in common with your example of "lame" but not with "gypped". –  Jim Mack Jul 5 at 13:22
    
@tchrist, They use gay as a “let’s call something a bad thing we don’t like” when you say they do you mean everyone, people you know or someone you know well, maybe you could provide a source for it? You'll need to ask a new question about the other terms, this questions is about gay. –  Frank Jul 5 at 17:05
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I may be a little biased but this answer appears to be saying that, since it's possible to cook up a far-fetched explanation for the term, and there's no longer prejudice against gay people(!), it's unlikely that anyone who calls something "gay" is ever simply ascribing to it the negative connotations that being a homosexual person has. It would be an understatement to say I don't agree with this. –  bobtato Jul 5 at 23:55
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You do hear people using e.g. "queer" or "faggy" in a similar way, and you hear people saying "no homo", which has only taken off in the last couple of years. The language both follows and precedes the prejudice-- some people use these words because they're bigots, but others acquire negative connotations of homosexuality by using these words. Even if we were talking about completely distinct homonyms (but we're not), knowing "gay" to mean feeble / effeminate / pathetic would make it harder to attach that word to your own identity. –  bobtato Jul 6 at 11:01

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