a gay

geoffrey nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Dec 29 16:10:48 UTC 2010

I posted on this in the Linguist List back in 1992.


 Note that this affects both 'gay' and 'black', both of them group terms derived from monosyllabic adjectives. "He was sitting next to a black" is as suggestive of a disparaging attitude as "We have a gay living next door" is. Also, this isn't a matter of sg/pl but of specificity. "There are two gays (blacks) on the commitee" produces the effect, whereas "There are no gays (blacks) on the committee" doesn't, nor does the kind-denoting bare plural: "Gays (blacks) have been supportive of the policy" -- cf also "some gays/blacks," "many gays/blacks" etc.

The effect seems to be pretty robust when I check with other speakers, but I'm at a loss as to why things should fall out this way.


> From: Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Date: December 28, 2010 10:28:49 AM PST
> Subject: a gay
> This has been mentioned here before, if I am not mistaken. In fact, I've
> mentioned it before--in the context of non-native speakers saying "I am
> [not] a gay," or something to this effect.
> OED gay C. n. 5. a. has "chiefly in pl." but every single example is
> "gays" (or "gays and lesbians") and 5. b. has "the gay" as a social
> class. Here's one now in print (so no more anecdotal stories about
> Italians):
> http://goo.gl/HbT6k
>> "If an open gay does his job, I think he'll be accepted," said retired
>> Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, a former Navy SEAL.
> Just wanted to add that Worthington's language is not accidental and
> falls into a pattern of people apprehensive about "the gay" using the
> singular version of 5.a.:
>> "I don't think there is going to be that many of them that want to
>> sign up for SEALs anyway because of the closeness and the tightness of
>> the training," Adm. Worthington said.
>> "My opinion is that they're probably more clerical oriented. Medical
>> profession. Corpsmen. Stuff like that."
> and
>> "Put the word out," said Adm. Worthington. "If you hit on somebody,
>> you're going to get in a fistfight. You may not like it. I just think
>> if they maintain their composure, they don't bother anybody.
> So this seems to fall into the social pattern--I am assuming this has
> been previously identified, although I don't recall any specific
> discussion to this effect.
>    VS-)

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