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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 August, 2004, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
The terms they are a-changin'
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

Talk show host Richard Madeley was forced to apologise after he called lesbians "dykes" on daytime TV, claiming he thought it had become acceptable. Welcome to a modern-day minefield.

It's no surprise that someone once labelled the "uncooolest man in Britain" should find himself in such a fix when seeking to be down with the kids.

Richard Madeley, that doyen of daytime TV, was rattling off an anecdote during the afternoon show he co-presents with wife Judy Finnigan, when he threw in the word "dyke".

It was a low-level gaffe, especially given Madeley's record on such matters, but two complaints were lodged with the broadcasting watchdog and the following day he apologised on-screen.

Madeley told the audience of the Channel 4 show that he understood the word had, historically, been used to describe a lesbian in a disparaging manner. But he had genuinely believed the term was now widely accepted in popular culture as a "hip" way to describe a lesbian.

The language thing is tricky - I feel sorry for straight people
Thom Lynch, San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center
Which, in a sense, it is.

Vicky Powell, editor of the Gay Times, prefers the word to lesbian, which she describes as "clinical" and "medical".

"I'd use it in print and freely among friends without thinking twice about it. As long as someone isn't using it in a derogatory way, it doesn't worry me."

While the origins of "dyke" are unclear, it was coined between the wars by straight-folk as a put-down to lesbians.

Eventually the victims of this abuse hit on the idea of "reclaiming" the word for themselves, the idea being that if lesbians themselves began calling each other "dyke" the word would quickly lose its potency for causing offence.

It's the same principle that has seen the word "nigger" - once a vicious racial slur - revised as an expression of kinship in some parts of black culture, although many black people vigorously oppose it.

Mad world?

The reclaiming of pejorative words by radicals took root in the 1980s and the results have been pretty mixed.

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan
Mind the lexical gap: Richard and wife Judy
"Mad" and "crazy" have crept into conversation on the fringes of mental health activism.

"Queer", once a full-on term of abuse against homosexuals, is now fair game for mainstream TV schedules: Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, being two examples.

At the other end of the scale, "jigaboo" - a racist insult - has failed to make a convincing crossover, even though Spike Lee's 1988 film School Daze, about a fictional all-black college, had a faction by this name.

Yet anyone from outside these minorities, seeking as Madeley would put it, to utter these words in a "hip" way, does so at their peril. It's a lexicographic minefield.

Tony Thorne, head of the English Language Centre at King's College London, calls such words "unstable".

"They're liable to change their connotations and meanings depending on who is saying them, to whom, in what circumstances, sometimes even depending on their tone of voice."

Lexical gap

So while Vicky Powell prefers "dyke" to "lesbian", Ben Summerskill, of the Gay and Lesbian rights group Stonewall, refuses to say "dyke", although he doesn't object to others using it.

Boy/boi: boyish gay man or boyish lesbian
Heteroflexible: straight person with gay 'mindset'
Hasbian: lesbian who's gone straight

For those uncertain of which way to tread, Mr Summerskill advises safety first. "If you don't know the meaning of a word, it's probably better to err on the side of caution," he says.

Given the potential for causing offence, why does anyone stray down this path at all?

At the heart of these disputed words is what's known as a lexical gap - where the official language has failed to keep pace with real life. Slang and sterile, academic words sit at either end of the spectrum, with nothing in the middle.

"These are contentious issues which have only started to be discussed in the last 30 years - not long enough in our culture for language to find fitting words," says Mr Thorne, editor of the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.

Some reclaimed words have made a more convincing crossover into the mainstream. "Gay" - now a widely used synonym for homosexual - used to be a term of disapproval, with implications of promiscuity, says Mr Thorne. Before that, of course, it simply meant happy.

"Black" is another example - initially it was a word used against people of African and Caribbean descent.

Mr Thorne, though, thinks that "dyke's" long history of negative connotations means it's unlikely ever to make the transition into mainstream conversation.

At the cutting edge of New York's lesbian community however, muttering the word "dyke" could raise eyebrows for an entirely different reason: it's already passť. Some lesbians are choosing instead to call themselves "boys".

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