In my own early 1970s Ontario Wonder Years, everyday adolescent language was at once piquant, ironic and flexible. ‘Tool’ was common currency for the least accomplished among us, ‘browner’ for the smarties, and ‘occies’ (occupational) as the blunt, dismissive reference to students with learning disabilities. I am not embarrassed by the memories – it was dispassionate chatter, and I am not at one with the sociologists and associated deep thinkers connecting their dots to elevate mere words beyond their station as purported evidence of ingrained hostility or intolerance. Words used by kids cannot be taken at face value. These are immature communications, and one became immersed in its forms, and not necessarily tainted by any supposed substance. The expressions of youth slowly fall away as one hurtles into an adult life, replaced by others equally banal and superficial – look at the F-bomb use, noun, verb, gerund, preposition, and catch-all. Just a word, after all.
Whether Whitby youth subculture circa 1973 was more intolerant than its 21st century smartphone counterparts is difficult to assess. One suspects that throwing verbal hand grenades from behind digital barricades on Facebook gives young people a sense of invincibility that old-fashioned, face to face insults and lesser trash talk would not match.
‘Gay’ was ubiquitous. From descriptions of perceived schoolyard effeminacy, a useless teacher, a rained-out ball game, to circumstances utterly disconnected from sexuality (“you’re bike is so gay”, and other gems), ‘gay’ could be counted on, a linguistic jack of all trades, to get the job done. Etymologists trace its well-worn progression from medieval descriptor of cheer and light-heartedness, to contemporary connotations of sexual or domestic preference. And with the welcome – even stirring – Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage rights in the Great Republic, ‘gay’ receives its deserved formal judicial sanction as a synonym for equality and human dignity that the rational American majority have supported for at least a generation. Nice work, gay!