Here’s The Dirt On Using This ‘F’ Word

Is a common epithet for homosexuals becoming a new N word, verboten in civil discourse?
Grey’s Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington got into a world of trouble last week for twice using a homophobic slur starting with the letter F to describe castmate T.R. Knight, who was not pleased. Neither were gay and lesbian groups and Washington’s bosses at ABC. The actor apologized and entered counseling.
But the media hubbub about the f-word — not that other f-word — has spotlighted a subtle shift in the national culture, showing how language and attitudes are connected and how the definitions of what is and isn’t acceptable are changing.
“We are in a place where the words traditionally considered the most obscene — sexual and scatological words — are viewed as less and less offensive, while words that are ethnic and religious slurs have increased in offensiveness,” says Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The more we care what blacks, Hispanics or gays think, he says, “the more attuned we are to slurs against them.”
Grey’s co-star Katherine Heigl, Knight’s pal, says the word should be “obliterated.”
“It breeds hate,” she said backstage at Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.
It’s not clear how the f-word came to have a homophobic meaning, Sheidlower says. Five hundred years ago, “faggot” meant a bundle of twigs or kindling, which gave rise to the British colloquialism “fag” for cigarette.
But, as is common in the English language, words with the same spelling and pronunciation can mean something entirely different. “No one knows the origin, but there’s some evidence that (the term) may have referred to a bad-tempered woman in the 16th century,” Sheidlower says.
“What is clear is that it is a word now used to denigrate and dehumanize people — and not just gay people,” says Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “It’s a tear-you-apart kind of a term.”
But “queer” isn’t, or at least not anymore. Not with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk on television, “queer studies” in universities, and groups such as the Queer Association of Scientists and Researchers.
“It’s very different from the f-word because it’s tied to (the meaning) ‘strange’ or ‘odd,’ ” Giuliano says. Young gays “have reclaimed it and used it to self-identify.”
In any case, both the f-word and the n-word have been heard on TV recently. In this week’s episode of the tabloid drama Dirt, on cable’s FX, a character uses the f-word to refer to a macho action star about to be outed. It has been used on episodes of The Sopranos, and gay activist/writer Larry Kramer titled his 1978 satirical novel Faggots. And the n-word, perhaps the most offensive of all slurs, was used — by black characters to other black characters — in recent episodes of Dirt and NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
“Context is everything,” Dirt producer Matthew Carnahan says. “We certainly are not trying to spread anything even remotely resembling hatred or bigotry of any kind. This show is all about everyone being flawed, wild and crazy.”
What if Washington had used “queer” instead of that f-word?
“It would have been just as bad because it was in the context of a put-down,” Giuliano says. “The fortunate aspect of this unfortunate situation is that many more people will see that casual and mean-spirited use of this word is unacceptable.”
from USA Today

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