To Be "Queer": A Brief Linguistic History
Start writing a post
Politics and Activism

To Be "Queer": A Brief Linguistic History

What does it mean to reclaim a word?

944
To Be "Queer": A Brief Linguistic History
Outright Vermont

Merriam Webster defines the word "queer" as “worthless, counterfeit," "questionable, suspicious," differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal," or "often disparaging: homosexual, sometimes offensive.”

Is the word “queer” a slur then? If so, why does Western Washington University, and so many other schools, have queer resource centers? Why do so many people, myself included, use “queer” as part of their identity?

Like with so many other things, let's consider the history.

In the early 16th century came the first recorded usage of "queer" in English, which originated from the German “quer,” meaning oblique, perverse. The usage was primarily the same until the turn of the 19th century, the word meaning “odd,” “perverse,” and “outside the norm.” But even before "queer" meant “not straight,” it gained secondary definitions. In the 17th century, "queer" had the secondary meaning of “giddy or drunk.” The first time "queer" was used to refer to a gay person was in the 1840s, that we have record of. John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, Scotland, wrote a letter to his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, blaming Archibald Primrose, “snob queers like Roseberry,” for his other son Francis’s death.

By 1914, "queer" appeared in L.A. society pages. By this time, “queer” was used both within the community and outside it -- within the community, such as by Gertrude Stein, but outside the community, it was used as a slur. By the 1970s, linguistics scholar Julia Penelope interviewed gays and lesbians for "American Speech," and all knew the term but thought it was used by straight people to shame and show disdain for gay people.

In the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis and epidemic, one group of militant gay people responded with the creation of a group called Queer Nation. They handed out leaflets called “Queers Read This” during a pride march in New York in 1990. They wrote:

“Ah, do we really have to use that word?...Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious. That's okay, we like that. But some gay girls and boys don't. They think they're more normal than strange. And for others ‘queer’ conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering. Queer. It's forcibly bittersweet and quaint at best --- weakening and painful at worst. Couldn't we just use ‘gay’ instead. Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”

During the 1990s, in part because of the success of Queer Nation, “queer” started appearing in academia -- “New Queer Cinema” and “Queer Theory” are two examples. By the 2000s, pop-culture took note with “Queer as Folk” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

Now, “queer” has, for some, become an umbrella term, not just uniting gay men and lesbians, but people across the sexuality and gender spectrums. Why do some words get reclaimed and not others? I don’t know the answer, and there are plenty of people who have devoted a lot more time than I have who don’t know either.

My theory about why "queer" was reclaimed successfully? There were plenty of gay slurs that could have been reclaimed. It was because there was a need for it. LGBT is not fully indicative of the diverse and wonderful community that so many people, myself included, belong to. LGBTQIA is better, but some people are still left out, and it alienates community and non-community members; alphabet soup is not a great rallying cry. Queer, though? It's short, sweet, and inclusive: Exactly the kind of word that the community needed in the past, and definitely needs now.

My favorite thing about “queer” is the irony; it's a word that is supposed to mean "strange," but now, it can give people a common ground, a community, and an identity that unites people rather than divide them.

Report this Content
This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
New Year Resolutions

It's 2024! You drank champagne, you wore funny glasses, and you watched the ball drop as you sang the night away with your best friends and family. What comes next you may ask? Sadly you will have to return to the real world full of work and school and paying bills. "Ah! But I have my New Year's Resolutions!"- you may say. But most of them are 100% complete cliches that you won't hold on to. Here is a list of those things you hear all around the world.

Keep Reading...Show less
Lifestyle

The Ultimate Birthday: Unveiling the Perfect Day to Celebrate!

Let's be real, the day your birthday falls on could really make or break it.

41542
​different color birthday candles on a cake
Blacksburg Children's Museum

You heard it here first: birthdays in college are some of the best days of your four years. For one day annually, you get to forget about your identity as a stressed, broke, and overworked student, and take the time to celebrate. You can throw your responsibilities for a day, use your one skip in that class you hate, receive kind cards and gifts from loved ones and just enjoy yourself.

Keep Reading...Show less
Featured

Unleash Inspiration: 15 Relatable Disney Lyrics!

Leave it to Disney to write lyrics that kids of all ages can relate to.

60702
The 15 most inspiring Disney songs

Disney songs are some of the most relatable and inspiring songs not only because of the lovable characters who sing them, but also because of their well-written song lyrics. While some lyrics make more sense with knowledge of the movie's story line that they were written for, other Disney lyrics are very relatable and inspiring for any listener.

Keep Reading...Show less
Featured

The Six Most Iconic Pitbull Lyrics Of All Time

Mr. Worldwide just wants to see you succeed.

78940
a photo of artist Pitbull

It is no secret that Pitbull is a gifted artist, but many fail to remember that he can be a source of great inspiration as well. The following is a list of iconic Pitbull lyrics that we know and love. Read on to feel empowered — if you think you can handle it.

Keep Reading...Show less
Featured

11 Essential Expectations for Becoming the Ultimate Cheermeister

Mastering Festive Expectations: Tips to Shine as Your Holiday Cheermeister

107863
Crazy for Christmas

So you’ve elected yourself as this year's Holiday Cheermeister, there’s no shame in that. The holidays are your pride and joy, and you've taken on the responsibility to get everyone in the spirit. With only one week until Christmas, here are some things we expect from you, Cheermeister.

Keep Reading...Show less

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Facebook Comments