Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Two Other F-Words

Posted by Neal on December 2, 2005

Here are a couple of interesting posts that appeared in the linguablogosphere during my blogging hiatus during the last month:

In this post on Phonoloblog, Bob Kennedy tries to find a rule or rules to explain why some initials, such as JD or DJ, are popular as nicknames, while others, such as MN, are not.

Next, have you ever been reading about some group of people who, the writer tells you, speak a “guttural language,” or more likely, a “harsh, guttural language,” and wondered what the heck guttural actually means? And why do you hardly ever hear about pleasant or romantic guttural languages? Benjamin Zimmer of Language Log answers these questions.

A more recent post from Benjamin Zimmer talks about the F-word in pro football. This is a funny post, and it reminded me of a snippet of the Glenn Back radio program I heard back in January 2003, where Beck took great offense at the use of an f-word. When I turned on the radio, Beck had apparently just been up on his soapbox about some issue, on one of his more intense rants, and his producer was trying to calm him down. The producer reassured Beck that he personally agreed with him about the importance of the issue, and it needed to be talked about, but…

Producer: …you always get so flamboyant
Beck: I can’t believe it! You just called me gay!

The producer denied making any such claim, but Beck wasn’t letting him off the hook. We all know, he said, that flamboyant was code for gay. The producer disagreed. Beck came back with an ultimatum: Apologize, or resign.

That’s about all I got to hear before I parked the car, so I never heard how it turned out. But the rest of the day I was thinking about whether flamboyant could be said to mean “gay”. Certainly, some gay people are flamboyant, but it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being gay. That is, some gay people aren’t flamboyant, and some flamboyant people aren’t gay.

But what if it really were the case that all flamboyant people and only flamboyant people were gay? Could the words then be said to have the same meaning? Only if we also say that 2+3 = 5 means the same thing as Force = mass*acceleration, since both statements are true. Only if we also say that Peter Parker means the same thing as Spiderman, since the two terms refer to the same individual. As semanticists put it, if all gay people were flamboyant and vice versa, then the two terms would have the same extensional meaning–as 2+3=5 and Force=mass*acceleration, and Peter Parker and Spiderman do in our world. But to capture the idea that flamboyant describes a certain kind of personality, while gay describes a person with a particular sexual orientation, semanticists talk about the words’ intensional meaning.

Of course, the intensional meaning could change. Flamboyant could just come to have a separate meaning of “homosexual, regardless of habits of dress, speech or public behavior,” which could then drive the original meaning to extinction–the same journey that gay took. I’m curious: For how many people has flamboyant already made this transition? Doing a Google search, I find plenty of instances of flamboyant that do not refer to homosexuality, but when I told a class I was teaching about the conversation between Glenn Beck and his producer, they all immediately knew what Beck’s reaction would be to the label flamboyant.

3 Responses to “Two Other F-Words”

  1. Eric said

    I’d like to take credit for that phonoloblog post, but that was Bob Kennedy.

  2. Neal said

    Oops. It’s been corrected, thanks!–>

  3. […] related words can start to take on just the meaning of “funny”, in much the same way as flamboyant is sometimes taken to mean “homosexual”, or decadent seems to have come to mean nothing […]

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