How 'Gay' Lost Its 'Shtick' Over Time

When Good Words Go Bad, Our Guy Gets in a Tizzy

By Philologos

Published November 13, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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Orin Hargraves, who describes himself as “an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries,” has sent me an Internet article whose point of departure is a June column of mine about the Yiddish word “shtick.” There I pointed out that “shtick” has acquired a new meaning in American English — that of a gripe or exaggerated complaint — that it never had in Yiddish or among Jews, and Mr. Hargraves, humorously calling this a case of “lexical apostasy,” discusses the phenomenon in his posting.

Friedrich Nietzsche
getty images
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Lexical apostasy” is not a bad term for a word like “shtick,” which changed its colors after leaving its original community of speakers. Mr. Hargraves argues that it is pointless to fight such things. “The strength and force of language police will never be such that they can stop the development of new word meanings,” he writes, pointing to the example of the English word “gay,” which once meant… but there’s no need to tell readers of the Forward, even young ones, what “gay” once meant as opposed to what it means now.

Although “throughout the 1960s and ’70s,” Mr. Hargraves continues, “writers and columnists, mainly of a conservative or religious stripe, decried the appropriation of ‘gay’ by a minority speech community,” the battle, even if it was an attempt to save a “useful and cherished word,” was hopeless from the start. Once “gay” (a word, by the way, whose earliest recorded sexual use in English slang, dating to the 1860s, denoted a prostitute or a person of loose morals) was on a popular new roll, nothing could have been done to stop it.

Perhaps Mr. Hargraves is right about this. Still, the analogy between “shtick” and “gay” strikes me as inaccurate — and not only because with “shtick,” a new meaning was added to older ones that continued to exist, whereas with “gay,” a new meaning replaced an old one and rendered it obsolete. I can still say, “That’s not his shtick,” and be understood to be saying, “That’s not his way of doing things,” rather than, “That’s not his gripe,” but I can’t say, “He’s gay,” without everyone assuming that I’m talking about someone’s sexual orientation rather than his mood or emotional state.

And that’s the least of it. Even if the old meanings of “shtick” were totally effaced, nothing very tragic would have happened. There are enough other words in English to fill the gap. (In place of “That’s not his shtick,” for example, one has, “That’s not his thing,” “That’s not his bag,” etc.) The loss of the original sense of “gay,” however, is irreplaceable. There is simply no other English word with the same shade of meaning — and because this meaning is not only “old and cherished,” but also describes something humanly important, the loss is a real one for us all.


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