July 18, 2007

I gay, you gay, he gays

Some readers will already have heard, and others will not, that I recently decided to end my employment at the wonderful Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and move to the Linguistics and English Language department at the great University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. This is necessitating an extraordinary quantity of work packing books and getting ready to emigrate, so it has been totally impossible for me to post anything on Language Log for a while now. The moving truck arrives tomorrow (Thursday), and it is still not clear whether we can be ready. (Thanks, Rachel, for coming down to help for a day; you are truly a special Language Log fan. Your generosity brings tears to my throat and gives me a lump in my eye, or possibly I have those idioms the wrong way round. Didn't we have fun tossing out all those files and hauling them to the recycling bins? So I was not expecting to write anything for Language Log readers today, not even for Rachel, but I simply cannot miss the opportunity to repeat for you what Dave Landfair (thanks, Dave) told me he witnessed on the Logo network's "Coming Out Stories" show: the mayor of West Sacramento, talking to the camera about how coming out of the closet might affect his politics, said: "I want to start thinking of gay as a verb and not just a noun."

Ye gods. This one is a jaw-dropper even in a world where people think faith is a verb and God is a verb and happiness is a verb and terror is something other than a noun and all adjectives are negatively judgmental and all employees should be forbidden to use gerunds...

The linguistic fact, by the way, is that gay is primarily an adjective, though just like the adjective homosexual it has a secondary use as a count noun referring to a person who has the property in question. If the mayor wants to start thinking of gay as a verb, is it transitive ("I gayed him")? Or intransitive ("How often do you gay")? What meaning does he think of it as having? When someone gays, what is it that he is doing? What is gaying? (Oops, I used a gerund.)

[Added later: Steve at Language Hat points out that there is an intransitive verb in Scottish English pronounced the same as gay. It means "go". But hey, I haven't even got time to type this.]

Look, I have to be getting back to my moving chores. But let me just point out that move really is a verb, while in Standard English chore normally isn't, even though a chore is something you do. (It actually is a verb in some rural American dialects, where you can refer to doing chores as choring; but not because chores are something you do; in those dialects it takes verb suffixes like any other verb.) ‘Verb’ does not mean "thing that you do"! Got that? Because thousands of the people around you don't get it at all.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 18, 2007 01:04 AM