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Daring to Speak Its Name

In response to:

Rescuing Homosexual History from the December 4, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Regarding Keith Thomas’s lament of John Roswell’s use of the word “gay”: After a thousand years of oppression, the heterosexual majority can’t spare us a three-letter word? In any case, surely it is absurd to suggest that such “linguistic change” is affected (much less effected) by the publication even of a very good history, or that it somehow needs the imprimatur of a university press. And Thomas’s assertion that this semantic expropriation will “make nonsense of much inherited literature” seems unnecessarily alarmist. Our language is full of homonyms and terms which can be distinguished only by tone or context. “Finished,” “rare” (or “well done”), he’s “hot,” “mad,” even “sad”: each has a number of quite disparate meanings, yet no one complains of ambiguity. (Certainly there is none in the one example Thomas gives of the use of the word “gay,”)

As Thomas concedes, most semantic rearguard action is futile, in any case. I try each year to explain to my students why Coleridge’s Imagination is “plastic,” and to persuade them that Hazlitt’s “disinterestedness” (there’s a more nearly “indispensable” word) doesn’t imply that he doesn’t give a damn. One suspects that were there not still a residual distaste for homosexuality even in academic circles, we would all, Thomas included, by now be disinterested in the supposed “semantic loss” of the word “gay.”

Peter L. Thorslev, Jr.

Department of English

University of California, Los Angeles

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