Oh, Behave: The Word 'Gay' Does Not Equal 'Stupid'

Filed under: Gay Parenting

I thought my nephew was a linguistic genius when he said he was "being have." His mother had admonished him about something, and she'd told him to "behave." His indignant response was, "I am being have."

Genius, I thought. Be good, be quiet, behave -- they all sound exactly the same to 4-year-old ears. I am being good, I am being quiet, I am being have. The boy's destined to be a linguist, I thought.

I soon discovered John's error was a childhood classic, not a sign of genius. Generations of children have made the same leap of grammatical construction, because it's so completely logical. Language may not be logical, but the people who use it can be.

But I did think my daughter Mary* was really on to something new recently, when she referred to competing against her sister in a Wii game as "versing." Progressing through a series of screen options, you see Mario vs. Luigi, Red Team vs. Blue Team, etc. Not being big consumers of legal documents, video games are how kids get exposed to "versus." And it's easy to hear how, to a child, "Mario vs. Luigi" could be understood as Mario doing this new verb, "versing," to his sidekick.

So, in our house, Mary's excited reports -- "I was versing Ann at tennis, and I won!" -- seemed like an inside joke to us. We even used it ourselves, the way some families continue to intentionally mispronounce a name that a toddler once mangled.

But then we were handed Mary's pee-wee baseball schedule for the year, and there it was: The chart had columns for date, time, field location, snack parent and, yes, the last column was headed "versing" and contained the name of the team we would play in that game.

It sent me straight to Google, where I discovered this oddball verb has been around for quite a few years. Its derivation is -– I was right! -– the "versus" construction in video games and sports, so it makes sense that the 30-something baseball dad who made up the pee-wee schedule would use it so naturally.

Now, the reason I find this so interesting is that words really matter to me. Stumbling across a new word, or uncovering a new meaning, is genuinely something I find exciting. When my nutritionally deprived, vitamin D-deficient daughter finally started to walk, I watched those little matchstick legs wobbling under her and suddenly understood what it really meant to be "rickety." Moments like that truly delight my language-loving soul (even as that particular one broke my adoptive mom heart).

On the other hand, people who use "that's so gay" or "that's retarded" as a generic insult really get under my skin. In conversation one day with someone on this very subject, I said I was deeply offended when I hear "gay" as a replacement for "stupid" or "lame." My companion laughed at my own use of the word "lame" to mean "stupid," and I had a moment of revelation (and contrition) about what it means to be lame.

If I had a child (or parent, or horse) with a bum leg, maybe I'd have been more sensitive to that one. But the point is, words matter most when you use them thoughtlessly. I shouldn't need an example of actual lameness in my own family to know better than to co-opt the term to use as an insult.

My own sister once defended herself for allowing the use of the word "fag" in her home, saying it didn't mean "gay," it meant "nerdy." Ahh, I thought, so if you just skip the middleman it's OK. It's not necessarily that fag equals gay, and gay equals nerdy. It's just that to be a fag is to be nerdy. It's not about us gay people at all. Oh, yes, that makes it fine.

There are people on both sides of this argument -- there are those who object to using "gay" to mean "stupid" and who understand why using "Geronimo" as the battle cry for capturing Osama bin Laden might have offended some people. And there are those who find this approach to an evolving language to be ridiculous, overly sensitive and inflexible.

You can guess where I stand on this one: Words matter. When you use certain words to describe me, and then turn around and use those same words thoughtlessly, carelessly, to mean something else, then, yes, I take that personally. And when I use an expression thoughtlessly and am called on it, I learn. I respect language, and I assure you I don't use "lame" to mean "stupid" anymore.

In the same vein, there are die-hard traditionalists who decry the use of "versing" as being a harbinger of the death of the English language. Others applaud its evolution as being proof of the life of English. I'm not sure yet where I stand on this one -- it doesn't make my skin crawl the way "liase" does as a verb, but it seems so ... unnecessary. The Mets are versing the Braves this weekend? Why not just say the Mets are playing the Braves? Why invent a new usage where none is needed?

I guess it goes without saying that the opposing sides will no doubt continue to verse each other in these debates. I just hope everyone remembers to behave, and to keep the discourse civil.

*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy

Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name; read her blog on RedRoom. She and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday. Want to get the latest ParentDish news and advice? Sign up for our newsletter!

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.