In Which I Confess To Being a SNOOT, But Hear Me Out

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Online dating has its ups and downs. You can meet a lot more people, but the quality of those interactions tends to be more superficial. My biggest peeve with the medium is that there isn’t much etiquette. The worst example of this bad etiquette is that people will just stop talking to you—things will seem great and then they’ll just stop responding without explanation. It’s fine if folks aren’t interested, but I think it’s rude, lazy, and downright inconsiderate to just blow someone off without exercising the class to explain that you’re simply not interested.

Except, I did blow a guy off like that once. And for all the reasons in the world, you’re going to think me pretty pathetic for the one that could rile me in such a way to just stop talking to someone, but hear me out.

My issue with him? The word “gay.” He was a grad student in linguistics.

Now, language is cool; I love playing with it. But this character was a descriptive linguist, through and through. We’re talking “language hippy” here. To him, there was nothing more cool or interesting than letting language just flow and be whatever it’ll be to whomever whenever. He thought the ebb and flow of language was sacred, and he would not disturb its pure and natural course regardless of the circumstances.

This did not sit well with me at all. I’m much more of a prescriptive grammarian. Words have power, and we have established rules for grammar for a very important reason: to communicate with each other as effectively as possible. I love using these rules when it comes to writing, because they allow me to write in ways that are easily comprehensible and conversational.

Consider that in this post I have already made effective use of an em dash, an oxford comma (which I will never give up—here comes another!), a semi-colon, and a colon—punctuation marks some might go their entire lives without using. And using them comes naturally to me, because my goal is to communicate as effectively as I can!

Of course, I’m not bound to cold, sterile writing. I also used “blow off,” “ebb and flow,” and “language hippy,” expressions that I’m sure you, as my reader, will understand, even though the way that I use them does not fit with their literal definitions. And so while I’m a stickler for prescriptive use of language, I also appreciate that descriptive grammar has its place.

Heck, I’m a blogger. If it weren’t for descriptive grammar, we wouldn’t have the word “blog.” Also, in a fleeting tribute to my rural roots, I have been heard to say “ya’ll” on occasion. (Come on, ya’ll, having a second-person plural can be very useful!)

Despite my flexibility, I still proudly identify as a SNOOT. You might call me a Grammar Nazi, a Syntax Snob, or the Language Police, and after I remind you about Godwin’s Law, I’ll take it as a compliment. I’m proud to know language rules and I appreciate the way they help me communicate. If new rules emerge or standards change, that’s great! Technology has certainly had a profound effect on the way we use words, and it makes perfect sense to me that we grow to accommodate this new paradigm of vocabulary and syntax. However, if we let words mean whatever they want to mean, they lose any meaning at all.

And that’s exactly why I blew off the language hippy. He thought the word “gay” had no meaning.

Somehow, we got talking about the expression “that’s so gay.” He argued that there was nothing wrong with using it to refer to something undesirable. It was just a new use of “gay.” It had nothing to do with homosexuality and it had no negative impact whatsoever on gay people. He had no problem with young people using the expression and didn’t think teachers should discourage it in any way. “It’s just the natural evolution of language,” he told me.

I was so pissed I just stopped talking to him. I found his perspective ignorant, delusional, and abhorrent. As a confident gay man and social justice educator, I still feel a little sting when people say “that’s so gay.” Usually, they are completely oblivious to the fact that “gay” actually means “homosexual,” but this ignorance is irrelevant and unforgivable. Anyone who is gay knows what the word means. And “that’s so gay” clearly derives from decades of negative attitudes towards gays and lesbians (not unlike the roots of other identity-related words like “lame,” “faggot,” and “nigger”). How this linguist could ignore the history of a word in favor of its natural fluidity just disgusted me.

Words and language have incredible power. All those “sticks and stones” and “thick skin” turns of phrase constitute propaganda spread by people who don’t want to take responsibility for their own (mis)use of language. We know that language helps maintain privilege in our society in some profound ways. We also know that language like “that’s so gay” has harsh consequences for the mental health of young people. Just because people use “gay” in that way does not make it okay to use. Achieving social justice requires we be conscientious about the words we use and that we take responsibility for their impact on others.

My brief online discourse with that linguist was years ago, but I still find myself irritated by his obliviousness. That’s why I’ll always be a prescriptive grammarian; I don’t want to ever encourage others to be lazy with their language. The consequences could be severe.

I’ll do my best to not be too SNOOTy, but friends, if I ever correct your grammar or protest your word choice, I hope you will not judge me for my tact. My goal will always be to help you be a better communicator and to make sure the language we use doesn’t hurt people. If you choose to respond defensively by disparaging me for my unyielding affect of perfectionism, hopefully the inherent subconscious negativity that concerned me in the first place will be revealed.

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There are 7 Comments to "In Which I Confess To Being a SNOOT, But Hear Me Out"

  • Thank you for this.  I, too, am something of a grammarian.  Rules can be flexible, but they’re there for a reason.  Changing the meaning of a word that has been at any time used to denote a group of people isn’t something to be taken lightly.

  • Shirley says:

    The use of the word ‘gay’ to mean whatever it means isn’t about grammar. I myself am definitely not in the ‘grammar nazi’ camp, mainly because I feel that issues surrounding Standard grammar are often  masking issues of superiority in general. So you will get people insisting that kids in the regional playground use ‘The Queen’s English’ when they can perfectly understand each other using their own regional grammar. It’s a different matter if they’re in a job interview, but I don’t see anything wrong with teaching people the appropriate grammar to use in various situations and I don’t see why Standard English grammar should have this air of superiority surrounding it.
    But that’s not what we’re talking about here. The use of the word ‘gay’ to denote ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’ is a change in the vocabulary. As we all know, ‘gay’ originally meant ‘bright’ or ‘happy’ and is now commonly accepted as ‘homosexual’. The trouble is that it has not yet left the meaning ‘homosexual’ behind, so it can’t easily move on to meaning ‘a bit crap really’ without obvious links to the previous meaning. Perhaps that would be OK if the two meanings were positive, but linking a part of someone’s identity to the meaning ‘crap’ is not just not very kind really. We can use other words to denote ‘rubbish’ so while we get a choice about it, we should.

  • libhomo says:

    The problem with “that’s so gay” is that it is based on homophobic ideology.  I’m more in the descriptive linguistics camp, but I refuse to support anything based on bigotry.

  • david says:

    Hey! Just found your blog via news about your NetRoots Nation win – congrats! Love the blog, can’t wait to listen to more podcasts. Thanks for doing good work, D

  • david says:

    see, that’s the thing about first impressions… by “win” of course I mean “nomination.” geez and I even used my real email and everything.

  • ZackFord says:

    Oh, don’t worry, David. I did actually win. I just haven’t announced it on the site yet because of the holiday. Thanks for stopping by and leaving comments! I love hearing from readers.

  • Shirley says:

    You won? That’s great! 😀

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