Thursday, January 07, 2016

Evolving words

When Donald Trump spouted off that Hillary Clinton had been "scholonged" in a debate, Josh Marshall jumped into the subsequent media storm with some evidence that Donald Trump may have grown up in a place (Queens) and time (the 1950s) when the usage was without explicit sexual content and simply meant "thoroughly defeated." Nothing about this was meant to let Republicans' favorite blowhard off the hook:

... I find it interesting that this might actually be a usage Trump knows from his childhood that he might use with less consciously sexual meaning that we might imagine. This isn't defending Trump. As I noted this morning, I found his description of Clinton's using the restroom as "disgusting" wildly more offensive than "schlonged." We have more than enough examples of Trump's calling women "fat pigs" and a long catalog of other woman-hating phrases to make a clear judgment on the guy. ...

Well, maybe and maybe not. Is anyone, including the Donald himself, sure what the guy "really" means?

But this got me thinking about another word in wide common usage in several eras whose meaning has changed pretty radically during my lifetime. Interestingly I think the expression is now on its way out of any usage.

When I was an aspiring Berkeley radical and hippie in the 1960s, certain that we could not trust anyone over 30, the world was divided into two camps. There was our tribe of the young and enlightened -- and outside our circle, in hopeless social conformity and ignorance, there were the "straights." Straight people just didn't get it that a new world was aborning. They demanded that boys cut their hair, girls forgo sex, and all of us should finish school and get a damn job! "Straight" meant conventional and boring but usually too out of it to be threatening.

Twenty years later, "straight" had acquired a different meaning -- it had come to refer to heterosexuals, especially ones who were hostile to our LGBT "lifestyle." These straights might get gays fired, toss us out of apartments, reject people with AIDS, bar us from church, or beat us up. Some straight people were just uniformed and could come around to know us, but some were dangerous. To call someone "straight" implied a need to be wary.

As LGBT people's presence in society has become widely considered "normal," even when not fully accepted, the latter usage of "straight" seems to have gone away. I don't miss that.

I do miss the former usage of "straight" -- it wasn't always hostile. Sometimes it just meant people who didn't understand ... Thinking about this, I wondered what I might call such people now and was at a loss. That is, I was at a loss until I remembered that J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame had given us a contemporary alternative: folks who just don't see the magic are "Muggles." Now there's a useful category.


Rain Trueax said...

If someone is not out in society that often (even in the media), it can be hard to keep up. I have a friend who is gay but when I wrote a piece regarding homosexual issues, he took offense. To him that was a word he hated and preferred gay. I was in shock as I thought hetero or homo just designated a physical meaning. Nobody wants to hurt someone's feelings, especially if they like them, so I avoid using the word. Writing fiction, as I do, runs up against this all the time-- especially when it's an historic period. It's safer to describe behavior than to put a label on anyone.

Rebecca Gordon said...

As you know, there are those of us who follow the lead of the Yarn Harlot and refer to non-knitters as muggles.

Hattie said...

I never thought about using straight in that way. Can't even remember doing so,which doesn't mean I didn't,of course.

Brandon said...

Check out the movie Clueless, in particular the scene where Cher and Dionne meet Tai, who is wearing grunge clothes. After they befriend her, Tai exclaims she's never had "straight friends before" and Cher and Dionne exchange puzzled glances.

janinsanfran said...

Nice catch, Brandon!