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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.