Nobody uses "queer" to mean "odd" anymore
November 28, 2009 2:05 PM   Subscribe

What is the name of the phenomenon where words lose their original meaning once they take on an off-color meaning? For instance isn't it queer that nobody describes themselves as "gay" anymore unless they are homosexual or are deliberately being provocative?

I know there's a term for that phenomenon because I had to learn it in my freshman linguistics class in college. But that was twenty-six years ago and my Google-Fu fails me. Help!

Bonus: Is there a complete list of those words somewhere? Or do you have a personal favorite?
posted by cross_impact to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the linguistic term, but a great example is Beaver College (an all-female school), which finally threw in the towel in 2001:
In July 2001, upon attaining university status, Beaver College officially changed its name to Arcadia University. It was thought that a new name would emphasize the school's position as one of the top small institutions of higher learning on the East Coast, and would cement its change in designation from "college" to "university." The decision was also made in part to shed its association with the former commonly derided name. As then-president Bette Landman noted, "[The name] too often elicits ridicule in the form of derogatory remarks pertaining to the rodent, the TV show Leave It to Beaver and the vulgar reference to the female anatomy."
posted by fatbird at 2:13 PM on November 28, 2009

You've queered your pitch with your example; still hear it used to mean 'odd.'
As to the actual question, semantic change?
posted by Abiezer at 2:18 PM on November 28, 2009

Euphemism treadmill?
posted by flod logic at 2:26 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Semantic change, of which a subset is the Euphemism Treadmill.
posted by ifandonlyif at 2:28 PM on November 28, 2009

Semantic change is the general form. The specific type of semantic change you're referring to is pejoration.
posted by jedicus at 2:29 PM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Not off-color, but the verb "mosey" originally meant "to move swiftly" and now it means "to wander slowly." Moving the other way, Dashiell Hammett supposedly started using "gunsel," which originally meant "an inexperienced young man" and had mutated in prison slang to mean "a bottom in a homosexual sex act," in his stories to mean "gunman" or "mobster." The story is that he did this to annoy actual mobsters who would have known what the term actually meant. Can't vouch for the authenticity of the story, though, but I've heard it often enough.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:41 PM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

posted by pick_the_flowers at 2:53 PM on November 28, 2009

It is not accurate to claim that all current uses of 'gay' are a result of pejoration, or are pejorative. Abiezer has it with the Wiki page for Semantic Change. There you will find a list of the major types of semantic changes. Every word is its own special snowflake, has it's own etymology (history), and the meanings can even branch off. For example, check out the wikipedia page for the term Gay. Right now we have a couple changes going on. There is the pejorative sense, as in "That's so gay!" and there's the semantic narrowing and metaphor sense, referring to a homosexual person. These two etymologies/semantic changes/uses are not interchangeable and shouldn't be conflated, even though their histories influenced each other.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:18 PM on November 28, 2009

I think the word is pejorative
posted by Gusaroo at 4:06 PM on November 28, 2009

If the OP is looking for "off-color" meanings — that is, sexually charged ones, whether or not they're derogatory — then pejoration isn't really the right word. Maybe taboo avoidance would be a better way of describing it?

(Now, if the sexual sense of the word then turns into an insult, that's pejoration. It was taboo avoidance when people stopped using "gay" to mean "happy," and pejoration when they started using it to mean "uncool" or "worthless.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:50 PM on November 28, 2009

I think semantic change is the most appropriate term.

Also, FWIW, "gay" isn't "off-color."
posted by desuetude at 5:13 PM on November 28, 2009

GenjiandProust: "Dashiell Hammett supposedly started using "gunsel," which originally meant "an inexperienced young man" and had mutated in prison slang to mean "a bottom in a homosexual sex act," in his stories to mean "gunman" or "mobster."

The version I heard was that gunsel (also spelled gonsel) was hobo slang for an underaged homosexual lover (often a boy looking to run away and enticed by the romance of life on the rails). Hammet used the word to describe a homosexual gunman in The Maltese Falcon, hoping that the editor would let the gay reference slip, thinking it meant gunman rather than twink. This was, of course elided in the most famous hollywood version, but in the 1921 version of the film, the character is clearly displayed as an effeminate fop.

Wiktionary's version of the story of the term gunsel backs this up somewhat.
posted by idiopath at 6:22 PM on November 28, 2009

Here are a couple that have gone in the opposite direction (from off-color to common usage):

Geek: carnival performer -> nerd
Idiot/Imbecile/Moron: clinical term for someone with a certain degree of mental retardation -> a dumb person
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 10:53 PM on November 28, 2009

Need not be off color. Governor Dummer Academy not so long ago went to The Governor's Academy

Sad, really.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:02 AM on November 29, 2009

Thanks for the leads and for reminding me of the sad and hilarious fate of Beaver College's name.

I apologize if I used the term "off-color" incorrectly. I meant to imply that "gay" has taken on a sexual connotation, as in sexual preference, and therefore is not used for its original meaning
posted by cross_impact at 10:36 AM on November 30, 2009

posted by paduasoy at 2:52 PM on December 7, 2009

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