The Down and Dirty on Being “Gay”

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Time to clear up all the confusion surrounding the word “gay.”

“Gay” is a multi-faceted word. Apart from its primary definition of “bright” or “lively,” its meaning as “sexually loose” and “dissipated” has been its most popular and enduring definition.

Being “in the gay life” once put you in the fast lane. “Feeling gay” left you amorous. The “gaying instrument” (19thC) was the male member, without which it wouldn’t be possible to “gay it.”

The “gay woman” was a major literary figure from Chaucer to Shakespeare, right on through the nineteenth century. She was “gay in the arse,” “groins,” or “legs” and spent much of her time in a “gay house.” Even today, in England, we have the “gay girl,” a hardworking flat-backer trying to turn an honest shilling (or is it a euro?).

“How long have you been gay?”
“I ain’t gay,” said she astonished.
“Yes you are.”
“No I ain’t.”
“You let men (make love to you), don’t you?”
“Yes, but I ain’t gay.”
“What do you call gay?”
“Why the gals who come out regular at night,
dressed up, they get their livings by it,” she said.
–Anon., My Secret Life, 1888

Although there exists much controversy among scholars, the word most likely derives from the Old English gal for “lewd” and”lascivious” (which also gave us quite a “gal,” a nineteenth-century British term for a prostitute) rather than the more obvious gai, from Provence in southeastern France, a word which earlier referred to courtly love and its literature.

Gay did not become associated with “simulsex” (early 20th C) until the early part of the twentieth century, as underground jargon. It went public with this meaning around 1903, with the” gay boy” in Australia, and in 1935 in the United States in the film “Bringing Up Baby,” in which Cary Grant donned a dress and commented how he had “gone gay.”

Between 1955 and 1960 the word captured everyone’s fancy, culminating in the joyous outburst of the seventies.

And what a wide range of personalities emerged! Some were “gay as pink ink” (mid 1950s), or “overtly, obviously homosexual.”Others were more restrained. They included the high achievers or “guppies,” “gay upwardly mobile professionals,” the morally upright gay Christians; and the “gaybies,” “young gay males with a cute face, stylish clothes, and a warm personality”–the kind you’d bring home to mother.

Not everyone, however, loved the word. Christopher Isherwood called it “Damned silly…A term which made us into frivolous Idiots–sort of bliss-ninnies.”

It also led to rather silly usage. such as, “THOUSANDS MOURN AT GAY FUNERAL,” a headline in San Francisco newspaper, cited in Detroit Free Press on August 27,1979.

Today, “gay,” or some word close to it, is used in more than a dozen countries in the same sense as in English. We have gay bars, gay boutiques, and gay publications. It’s become all so respectable–a far cry from the days when proprietors handed out “gayola” (gay + payola, c.1960): “blackmail or extortion paid to police to protect a homosexual establishment.”

Madison Avenue has at last awakened to the word’s full commercial potential, and wordsmiths have begun to retool the language. It’s probably only a matter of time before “the gay old dog”becomes an aged homo and “the gay blade,” a means of removing unwanted body hair.

Toujours gai! Mes amis.

my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
the things that i had not ought to
i do because i ve gotto
wotthehell wotthehell
and i end with my favorite motto
toujours gai toujours gai

boss sometimes i think
that our friend mehitabel
is a trifle too gay

— From The Song Of Mehitabel from Archy and Mehitabel

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Stop Screwing Around

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Hey you troublemakers out there. There are lots of ways of throwing a monkey wrench into the works (1947), “rendering them ineffective or non functional.” One is to put the kibosh on them (c.1836), from the Irish, cie bais, “cap of death,” referring to the hood worn by an executioner.

There’s also some sabotage. That began with the Arabic word sabbat, a “sandal” from which the French made a sabot, or “wooden shoe.” This created an image of downtrodden peasants rising up against exploitative landowners, trampling their crops by running through their fields with wooden shoes.

Etymology should only be so class conscious. Worn primarily by peasants unable to afford leather shoes, sabots were generally shabbily manufactured. They became so identified with “poor quality” as to spawn the verb saboter, “to do work badly.” Thinking it deliberate, we made the leap “to willfully destroy a plant or machinery.”

The heyday of sabotage was around WWI when militant trade unions first flexed their muscles. This was long before hackers (c.1971) started messing with our hard drives; though we’ve been hacking people since the late 19th century, either giving them a ride in a hackney coach or socializing idly with them. It wasn’t until around 1952, that we finally learned to hack it—to accomplish something or manage things successfully.

How to be on Top of Things

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Feeling spread thin? Aren’t we all? We’re so overextended, involved in so many things–like jelly or butter on a slice of bread. The coverage is there; it’s so spare, however, we can barely taste the goodies.

Paying homage to the concept, of a healthy diet, many today opt for margarine.

Napoleon III started things with a processed suet and milk mixture as a cheap butter substitute for his troops. It was later introduced to the American public as butterine, and shortly thereafter as oleomargarine (c.1873) from the Latin oleum, “oil” and the Greek margaron, “pearl,” from the pearl-like luster of a glyceride thought erroneously to be an ingredient. and pronounced with a hard “g “as in “gosh and golly.”

Butter being in short supply during WWII, oleo was widely used on the home front where housewives squeezed and kneaded plastic bags of white oleo together with the yellow-orange coloring packet.

The Dairy industry imposed strict regulations on its use—that it go by the full name oleomargarine and that restaurants offer it in triangles rather than butter’s traditional square pats. At the end of war we dropped the oleo, and the days of margarine were on us. It’s been a slippery slope, ever since.

A Number of Things You Need to Know

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When you play things by the numbers (c.1918), you do them in sequence, step-by-step, according to standard operating procedures, playing exactly by the rules, according to the book..

Numbers are not always reliable however. Consider the four-flusher (c.1904). He derives from poker where an especially powerful hand is five cards of the same suit called a “flush.” Four such cards though are essentially worthless.

Poker being a game of bluff and call, a player often tries to create the impression he has a flush, though he may be one card short. This made the four-flusher in everyday life into “one who makes false or pretentious claims.”

Gaming also has a way of leaving you behind the eight-ball (1926). In the game of Kelly pool, the object is to pocket the balls in order. If you should inadvertently hit the black eight-ball, however, you are penalized. Having the eight-ball between the cue-ball and the one you’re trying to pocket puts you “in an awkward position” and “at a distinct disadvantage.” This also made the eight-ball (c.1945, U.S.M.C) a “misfit “or “troublemaker.”

Not happy with the numbers. That’s too bad. These are simply the breaks of the game (c1905), “how the balls scatter after the initial break—every which way.

Guns ‘R Us: Our Violent Words, Our Violent Ways

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Shocked by the horrific event in Charleston? That’s America, baby — Columbine, Aurora, Newtown — its everyday stuff — just the way life is in our country.

Each night children go to bed with “Bang, bang, you’re dead . . . thirty bullets in your head,” At school, they learn to give things their “best shot,” and to meet “bang-up” expectations. When their efforts finally “go over with a bang,” they attain recognition as a “top gun.”

Shooting Their Mouths Off

“Top guns” were once synonymous with “great guns.” Our first “great guns” were simply large firearms like cannons, as opposed to smaller ones such as muskets or rifles, a distinction which held up to the end of the 19th century. They also came to name a person of note or consequence. The man we used to call a “great gun” was really something. Today we know him better as the real “big shot.”

Speaking of “big shots,” no one “goes great guns,” is more successful in pushing arms, than the manufacturers of guns and ammunition and their proxy, the N.R.A.

More Bang for the Buck

The expression, “going great guns” comes from British naval slang of the 18th century when “blowing great guns” signified a violent gale. For manufacturer of arms, however, it’s less a threatening storm than a windfall of profits. Gun makers churned out nearly six million guns last year — double the number that they did a decade ago. This year, the industry is expected to rack up in excess of $11.7 billion in sales and $993 million in profits.

They are literally getting “more bang for the buck.”

In 1953, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with a ‘New Look’ policy promising more combat effectiveness for less money, by substituting atomic firepower for manpower and conventional weaponry. They described it as the ‘bigger bang for your buck’ theory, a variation on Pepsi-Cola’s ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ (c.1950).

Today, “more bang for the buck” speaks directly to those seeking great returns for an investment in arms. It’s not just guns. It’s ammunition as well. As one gun lobbyist once put it, “You make a product for $300, and somebody could buy this revolver and, by the time they are 80, they’ll have fired $10,000 worth of ammunition through it.”

Better perhaps we should rephrase investment in armaments as “More bucks for the bang.”

Calling the Shots

Massacres are good business at creating “more bucks for the bang.” Critics may dramatically depict the results and fill the airwaves with talk about the need for new restrictions, but they only serve to convince gun owners that government is going to take away their right to buy guns, further spurring sales.

Feeding that frenzy is their mantra that everyone should be armed. When tragedies involving guns occur, they even go so far as to blame victims or their protectors for not having been properly armed. Their answer to gun violence, you see, is simply more guns.

That’s hardly a new idea. People have been keeping the peace with guns ever since 1330. The soldiers at Windsor Castle named their favorite and most prominent weapon — a huge catapult which hurtled large stones and balls of fire at the enemy — “Dame” or “Lady Gunhilda” from Icelandic gunnr, meaning “war” and hildr, a “battle”. Later, with the advent of the cannon, it was first shortened to gunne and later to gun, thus naming the world’s first firearms.

Though 75 percent of the American people favor some form of restriction on handguns, the big shots at the NRA work relentlessly towards its goal of a fully armed America. The sights of its 2.8 million members trained on Congress, it continues to “call the shots,” setting the substance and pace of the national debate. Congress is their target and they are dead on in compliance. It hasn’t passed a gun control measure since 1999.

The results are in. Today, you can find those sons of a gun everywhere. The horrors continue. And there’s no leadership in Congress willing to act decisively in any organized fashion to curtail their proliferation.

A Farewell to Arms

Sooner or later, we’ll just have to “bite the bullet” on the subject. A century ago, before anesthesia, it was common to give a wounded soldier a bullet to bite on in order to divert his attention from the pain of a battlefield amputation

No easy task to bite the bullet. In 1857, the Sepoys, many of whom were Muslim and Buddhist and constituted a large portion of Britain’s crack regiment in India, refused to fight, the mutiny ultimately breaking out into a full scale rebellion. The cause of their discontent was their belief that the bullets they first had to bite prior to firing were wrapped in a protective coating of lard and beef wax. Fact or fiction, the rumor managed to offend at once both the Buddhists to whom the cow was sacred and the Muslims to whom the pig was taboo.

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Like good soldiers, we too will have to grit our teeth and do what has to be done. As Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Bite the bullet old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” (“The Light that Failed,” 1891).

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What’s Cooking in Your Life?

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No one likes getting a raw deal (1950s), “treated in an unfair or harsh way”–”raw “long having been synonymous with” rough” and “unrefined.”

So let’s see what’s cookin’ (c.1940s),”happening or developing.” It could be “alteration of the facts” —cooking taking on that meaning around 1636. If cooking radically changes the nature of food, imagine what happens when you cook the books. Records are tampered with for fraudulent purposes; that’s what.

Such scams were concocted from the Latin, con, “with” and coquere, “to cook,.” our first concoctions having to do with digestion. In 1675, they became the “ingredients combined into a stew or a medicine,” and in 1792, “elaborately worked out schemes.”

It was Thomas Cook, a former missionary who cooked up the first travel agency in 1841 when he took a group of teetotalers on a railway trip to a temperance convention in the British Midlands. Cook’s tours became so synonymous with “organization,” that the British government hired him in 1884 to plan the itinerary of the troops sent to the Sudan –the first and only travel agency to book an army. Truly a half-baked idea.