English language Usage

Queer studies

Q: I had to laugh at your TripAdvisor post about the censoring of the word “cum.” Something similar happened to me when I tried to leave a comment on a newspaper’s website. I had to edit my remarks to avoid using the word “queer” in the sense of odd. Maybe someday comment filters will be smart enough to recognize context.

A: It would be great if comment-filtering programs had brains, and could distinguish innocuous usages from loaded ones. But technology has its limits. Don’t expect to see a filter with a high IQ for quite a while.

Your use of “queer” in the old, traditional sense was of course legitimate, as was the usage we wrote about in that blog posting.

An amused reader had told us that her use of the respectable preposition “cum”—as in “a language school cum Eco hotel”—was blocked on Trip Advisor’s website.

Interestingly, the Google search box on OUR website blocks the TripAdvisor posting when tuned to its default SafeSearch setting!

We’ve discussed “queer” before on our blog, within a posting about the history of the word “gay.”

As we said, the origins of “queer” are uncertain, though it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that “queer” in the sense of homosexual was first recorded as a noun in 1894 and as an adjective in 1914.

But in the early decades of its usage, that sense of “queer” (as with “gay”) was often an inside joke. A sophisticated writer could get some sly humor by using the word in two ways at once.

In our posting about “gay,” we cited this example from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”

We came across another double-edged usage recently while rereading Angela Thirkell’s 1934 comic novel Wild Strawberries.

One of the minor characters is an effeminate young BBC commentator whose hobby is embroidery and who’s headed for a “companionate marriage” with a female colleague.

His aunt says of him: “Queer boy, Lionel. I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys.”

We’re huge fans of Thirkell, by the way, and we’re pretty sure she knew what she was doing with “queer” in that passage.

Her novels occasionally include gay characters, like Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, a couple who live in a village in Thirkell’s fictional Barsetshire (yes, Anthony Trollope’s county dragged into the 20th century).

Miss Hampton, “the strong and gentlemanly spirit of the pair,” makes a study of “vice” and writes earthy novels (like Temptation at St. Anthony’s, set in a boys’ school) that are selected by the Banned-Book-of-the-Month Club.

And Thirkell enjoys naughty puns. For example, some of her younger characters are prep-school boys who enjoy baiting—or teasing—the schoolmasters. In at least three of her novels, she refers to them as “master baiters.”

Oh, dear. We’ve divagated a bit from our original point—that a perfectly innocent word can be interpreted as something to be filtered out by Big Brother.

Until a program is invented that can handle meanings with the delicacy of a Noel Coward or an Angela Thirkell, comment filters will continue to make asses of themselves.

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