Why Apple Should Leave “Stupid, Foolish” in the Definition of “Gay”

badapplerightIf you look up the definition of “gay” on an Apple device, it’ll tell you you’re “foolish, stupid, or unimpressive.”

But here’s the thing. Dictionaries are long, and you can’t expect every company that sticks a dictionary into its software to comb through and check every single definition. Apparently, Apple gets most of its definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, and sure enough, there it is: they have the exact same phrasing for “gay.”

The problem isn’t that Apple let one lousy definition slip through. And the problem isn’t even Apple’s reaction (they called the first person to discover the definition to let her know that they were dealing with it).

The problem is that it’s actually an accurate definition, and should stay. No, wait, hear us out.

The purpose of a dictionary is not to command or correct our language. It’s to observe and report the way that we use words. And that’s how some people (bad people, people with unexamined prejudice) use the word “gay.” It hurts, and the dictionary is doing its job by documenting that.

A dictionary isn’t like the president of the language, with the authority to make judgements and issue commandments about how we are or aren’t supposed to change how we talk. It’s an anthropologist, studying our language and maintaining a record of what we mean.

That’s why you’ll also find “nigger” and “fag” and “kike” in Apple’s dictionary. Look up “spade” and you’ll find “a black person,” which is a slur that’s fallen so far out of favor that most people don’t even know it’s a slur. On all of these definitions — as well as the objectionable definition for “gay” — the dictionary notes that the usage is offensive.

Apple places “a swindle” in the definition of “gyp,” and “nonunion or unlicensed” under “gypsy,” definitions with which Romani might take issue.

Their definition of “retarded” doesn’t include “very foolish or stupid,” but that’s the only definition in the NOAD. And Merriam Webster has an entry for “indian giver.” (Also, while you’re clicking around, check out this jaw-dropping album art.)

If you haven’t had enough, we also recommend that you whip out your iPhone and look up “colored,” “coolie,” “feringhee,” “frog,” “jock,” “lezzy,” “negress,” “paddy,” “paki,” “squaw,” “taffy,” and “wetback.”

So why do we bring all this up? Just to point out that some words are offensive. And some people use offensive words to hurt other people, which is terrible. It’s those terrible people who are the problem, not the dictionary for noticing them.

Erasing evidence of the problem doesn’t solve anything. What do we gain by denying that anyone who says “gay” means to say “stupid”? Or that no one has ever been called “wetback”? When some sheltered young person looks up “paki,” they need to know “oh, that’s offensive, I probably shouldn’t say that,” or “oh, the person who just called me that is definitely a racist.”

Those offensive definitions need to stay, at least while they’re still in common usage. (It might be time to add “anachronistic” to “spade.”) Yeah, it sucks to see “stupid” as a synonym for what you are. But to take away those offensive definitions is to deny that we were ever the victims of them.

Selectively deleting painful definitions is whitewashing history. Apple should stand up to it, and leave the definition as it is.

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  • sanfranca1

    That’s just the most recent definition. They should include other definitions too: (from the very recent past) homosexual, and (much older) carefree, happy, or bright and showy.

  • Deepdow

    This whole website is gay, and when I say that I mean unimpressive :P

    Ya’ll need to jack it up around here.

  • ncman

    The problem with your analysis is twofold.

    First, when the girl first found and reported the definition to Apple, it DID NOT SAY offensive. It was updated after her complaint to say “often offensive” as if to imply sometimes it isn’t offensive to use the “that’s so gay” phrasing.

    Secondly, all the other slurs you have mentioned here are noted as offensive in Apple, not “often” offensive. This means that Apple considers these other slurs to ALWAYS be offensive whereas “that’s so gay” to Apple is only offensive sometimes.

    I have no problem with Apple including the “that’s so gay” usage of the word gay in their dictionary. But, it should be labeled as offensive in the same way that all the other slurs are and not be given the qualifier of only being offensive “often”.

  • Rockery



  • Modernliving3

    @ncman: just read your comment after submitting mine.
    Totally agree!

  • EdgarCarpenter

    The dictionary is currently accurate – censoring dictionaries is a totalitarian practice, it has no place in a culture which tries to be democratic.

    Change society, convince people to stop using “gay” in that way – and it will stay in the dictionary anyway, but be flagged “obsolete”. That will be the best result.

  • MikeE

    @EdgarCarpenter: Don’t censor the dictionary, but don’t let the authors of a dictionary get away with sloppy semantics.

    “Gay” meaning “lame, stupid” is a pejorative and should ALWAYS be identified as such.

    I can’t imagine a dictionary including the “N” word and notating it as “considered inappropriate by some”.

  • bigomega73

    @ncman: I agree. We have to remember also that the English dictionary is not just used by us but by non-English speaking people trying to learn our language. We do them a disservice by not making them aware of words that are deemed offensive and leaving them open to potentially embarrassing situations by using inappropriate language.

  • queertypie

    MATT BAUME, this is one of the best commentaries I’ve ever seen on Queerty. Your point was made intelligently, compassionately and studiously. I feel that the “derogatory” definition of gay, as used by many younger people, should be annotated as a “slang derogatory” definition. Thank you for your insight and well written commentary.

  • viveutvivas

    I don’t agree, since the definition wasn’t marked as derogatory, whereas the other examples you list are so marked.

  • Saralikesyarr

    Well, it sometimes isn’t offensive.

    I’m a queer person, I’ve been called a fag, and faggot,

    Screamed at by rednecks in a parking lot for being with my partner,

    Been harassed, humiliated, and abused.

    And yet I still use “that’s gay” in the sense of meaning “that’s stupid”.

    Words can have more than one meaning.

    Words evolve.

    We can say “gay” in the sense of meaning “stupid” and not be implying any reference whatsoever to being lesbian, homosexual, or transgender.

    I’ve talked to many teens who are openly pro-LGBT and use words like “gay” and “fag” all the time when teasing each other in playful banter.

    We have to recognize that words do evolve.

    However painful the slurs were when used against us, we have to recognize that in a completely different context, in a completely different intent and meaning, a word that is spelled and pronounced the same can have a completely different meaning and essentially be a completely different word.

    British people use “fag” all the time to refer to cigarettes.

    We have to separate our own suffering and memories, from the fact that the world is moving on.

    Moving on from bigotry is a good thing.

    It’s also important to distinguish that the “old meaning” is still used as a slur. Especially in some places and by some people.

    But it’s not a universal meaning. Sometimes it’s being used as a slur, and sometimes a completely different word that sounds the same is being used to mean “stupid” or “moronic idiot” (in the case of fag).

    You know teens especially are always going to insult each other, playfully or otherwise. Whether or not it’s offensive depends entirely on the people and the context and the meaning behind it. Some teen laughing and teasing their best friend for saying something dumb, by saying “shut up fag! *laughing* you don’t know what you’re talking about! *laughs some more*” is not making an anti-gay slur.

    Somebody who harassing some transgender girl and following them in their car and shouting “Faggot!” most certainly is.

    It really just depends.

  • ncman

    @Saralikesyarr: really???? would you feel the same way if the teens start to use the “N” word in that manner and then claim it’s not a reference to African Americans? Or maybe they could start saying “That’s so urban” or “That’s so black” instead of “That’s so gay”. Do you think that would go over well? Maybe instead of “Shut up fag”, they could yell out “Shut up spic”, or maybe “Shut up beaner”. How do you think that would go over?

    You may believe that gay = stupid is not intended to equate the two and mean that being gay is stupid. But, just how do you think it got started? Do you think teens just picked a random word out of thin air and decided it now means stupid? They started using that phrasing because they defined being LGBT as being stupid or lame. You may think it has evolved beyond that. But, its origins are absolutely derogatory toward the LGBT community.

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