Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I’ve been having this debate with a friend of mine about the meaning of the word “facetious”.

To me it means jocularity at an inappropriate moment: trying to be funny when the conversation calls for something else. A facetious person is someone who thinks that they are funny, when they are not.

My friend says no: it simply means jocularity or humour. A facetious person, according to him, is a joking person, someone who is always making bantering remarks.

Actually, both definitions are true. In its original meaning, in French, facetiousness is simply wittiness or jocularity: a form of bantering humour. The fact that it has also come to mean something more negative is a consequence of the complexity of our language, a combination of Old German and Old French with a bit of Viking thrown in.

Once you have several words with the same meaning, each variation will tend to acquire more and more nuanced interpretations. Hence “facetious”. Originally just humour. Now humour at an inappropriate moment.

The point about language is that meaning is fluid, not fixed. Meaning is something that shifts over time. As I said to my friend, what does “fabulous” mean? What does “fantastic” mean? Both are words which have changed their meaning.

Or what about “gay”? This is a word which has changed it’s meaning not just once, but twice now.

It is also a measure of how people are constantly subverting “official” language.

To anyone born before the fifties, of course, it will have a range of associations around the ideas of brightness and happiness. Garlands of flowers are gay. People are gay when they dance and have fun. The blossom in early spring is gay.

In my younger days it became purloined by the rising Gay Liberation movement to mean homosexual, its current “official” definition. It is now the first definition in the dictionary. It was a radical move. By forcing the rest of us to redefine our terms it also asked us to think again about our own personal prejudices and, perhaps, to adjust them a little.

Most people these days, I imagine, are happy that the old stereotypes about homosexuality are gone and that people are free to choose their own path, as long as it doesn’t impinge upon others.

What people get up to in the bedroom is their own private business.

However, the irony is that the word has moved on again, with hardly anyone noticing. These days, amongst the young, “gay” tends to mean something like “fey” or “naff”: something slightly over-the-top and ridiculous, superficial or pretentious.

Elton John is gay in all senses of the word.

So “gay” has acquired an additional meaning as an implied insult, despite the language mafia’s attempt to control our use of words.

As for “facetious”: the reason my friend and I started this conversation is that I accused him of being facetious. I have since adjusted my description, calling his humour “tangentially facetious” instead.

He takes that as a compliment. At least I never called him gay.

1 comment:

doctorexistentialist said...

While "homosexual" relates specifically to sexuality, the term "gay" is a political or social marker

I got that off the 'net. What leaps out at me, and always has I guess, is that a group of people who have historically felt marginalised, go ahead and give themselves a label. And that, by it's nature, is something that continues to seperate them out from other people.

Defining yourself in such a limited manner only serves to exacerbate the stigma, in my opinion. Why do there have to be specific words? For example, people who have experienced or still experience mental health difficulties are called 'users' - I have always found this to be a demeaning label, and as all people are potentially going to have some kind of mental health issue in their lives - why bother with the label? It creates a 'them' and 'us' scenario.
I prefer to call people 'people' and let them individually define who they are.