In this article Louisa Hadley examines how language is built around the very idea of difference, and thus has the power to “other” people. Often, this is done explicitly and intentionally, but, as this essay shows through the history of the word “gay” (and with a look at Ash Beckham’s video, “It’s So Gay”), equally dangerous are the occasions when it is implicit and done without conscious thought.
Language is structured around differences. Whenever we define something, we are at least implicitly defining it in terms of what it is not. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “night” as ‘[t]he period of darkness occurring between one day and the next; that part of a 24-hour period during which a place receives no light from the sun; the time between evening and morning.” As well as being defined in terms of its physical qualities, i.e. the absence of sunlight, “night” is also defined in opposition to day, and also as distinct from “evening and morning”. While there have been debates among language theorists over whether language reflects divisions or creates them, the fact remains that language is built around the very idea of difference.
This idea of difference becomes particularly pertinent when thinking about human relations. At the fundamental level, all languages have ways of distinguishing between “them” and “us”; these very pronouns highlight the distinction between the groups. As the first person plural pronoun, “us” places the speaker within a group with a shared identity. By contrast, “them” is the third person plural, which is used to refer to people at a distance. In their denotation, their meaning, the words “us” and “them” contain no indication of power structures or perceptions of these groups. However, the power of words does not just derive from their definitions, but also from the connotations that they acquire through usage.
The power of language to “other” people becomes even clearer when we consider the words used to refer to “them”. In English, the word “foreigner” derives from the Latin forãs meaning “out of doors”. This literal meaning remained, but by the early 15th century it had been almost entirely overtaken by the metaphorical meaning of “of other countries”. Similarly, the French word “étranger” derived from the Latin extraneous, meaning outside, and then came to acquire the metaphorical meaning of “qui est d’une autre nation”. These words do not merely designate those from elsewhere as separate, however, but also as different. In both English and French, the word for someone coming from another country has connotations of strange and unfamiliar. This assumption that people from other places are strange and unusual is probably a consequence of the social conditions of the past. The lack of movement between nations meant that it was unusual to encounter someone from a different place, with a different culture and different customs from yours. However, the idea that those from elsewhere are strange persists even in these days of increased global mobilization. In part, this could be understood as a consequence of the desire to belong to a group, which produces a sense of shared identity that is distinct and separate from those who belong to other groups.
This desire to distinguish “us” from “them” often leads to words for the “other” acquiring explicitly negative connotations. These negative connotations are usually more pronounced in reference to groups that are geographically close to “us” as the need to distinguish “them” is even more fraught with social, cultural and political tensions. For instance, in the sixteenth century, the English language inscribed the negative opinion of the English in Britain towards the French with the emergence of the phrase “French pox” to refer to syphilis. However, as Rawson’s Wicked Words notes, “In other countries, the same complaint was known as the Neapolitan disease, the Polish disease, the Spanish disease, and even the English disease, each nation blaming another.” While this phrase has died out, perhaps due to the reduction in the number of cases of syphilis, the negative connotation of the word French persists in the English language, in the nineteenth-century expression “excuse my French”, in which French is a synonym for bad language, particularly taboo words such as swear words. As we can see, then, language does not neutrally reflect the divisions within the world, but also reflects human beings’ prejudices. While perceptions of people from elsewhere have changed over time, the language often preserves expressions that subtly encode these negative perceptions.
Language is not just used to “other” people who come from elsewhere, but also to mark out anyone perceived to be different due to their race, gender or sexual orientation. The history of the word “gay” is particularly interesting in this regard. Initially, the word just meant a light-hearted pleasure and it is still possible to come across this use of the word in literature. For example, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911), the narrator describes children as “gay and innocent and heartless”. The association of the word “gay” with sexual orientation began in the early twentieth century. In his article “A Queer Revolution,” Robin Bronstema traces the history of several words used to label the homosexual community. He notes that in the 1920s the word “gay” began to replace the word queer and that between the Second World War and the early 1990s, “gay” became “the primary label of self-identification among (mainly male) homosexuals”. Over time, however, it came to be used by those outside of the community to label and stigmatize homosexuals. More recently, there has been an increase in the use of the word “gay” in situations not relating to homosexuality. Specifically, the phrase “that’s so gay” has been applied to a wide range of circumstances – ranging from something mildly irritating, such as missing your bus, to something annoying and unpleasant. Although this phrase is not directly being applied to homosexuality, the associations it carries are implicitly applied to homosexuality. That is to say, by extension, homosexuality is considered to be irritating, annoying and unpleasant. While many people who use this phrase would argue that it does not have anything to do with homosexuality, it reveals the extent to which homosexuality is “othered” in our culture and our language. If this wasn’t the case, then the phrase could just as equally have been “that’s so straight,” but of course that sounds ridiculous in our current cultural context.
Clearly, then, language has the power to “other” people. Often, this is done explicitly and intentionally, but just as dangerous are the occasions when it is implicit and done without conscious thought. However, while the laws prohibiting hate speech address the problem of direct and intentional “othering” through language, the implicit and unconscious “othering” often goes unchecked. In order to create a society that is more open and tolerant of diversity, we need to not only call out those who explicitly use negative language to “other” people, but also those who unintentionally do so. Indeed, as Ash Beckham so eloquently puts it in her video, this is crucial if we want to move beyond merely tolerating diversity to actually accepting it.
English, Dawson College
 “night.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 27 October 2013.
 “foreign.” Word Origins. London: A&C Black, 2006. Credo Reference. Web. 27 October 2013.
 “étranger.” Le Petit Robert: Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise. Paris: Dictionnaires le Robert, 2000.
 “French.” Rawson’s Wicked Words. Chicago: Hugh Rawson, 1989. Credo Reference. Web. 27 October 2013.
 J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 226.
 Robin Bronstema, “A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation”, Colorado Research in Linguistics 17.1 (June 2004): 3-4.