Millennials and the Language Disconnect

millennial-disconnect-flashCommon phrases I hear from my students:

  • That exam was so gay.
  • Oh, come on, dude, don’t be gay about it.
  • … and then she totally queered the deal.

In a recent discussion about social changes in minority acceptance, I assigned a reading by C. J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag.

It prompted an interesting discussion: Saying someone or something is “gay” – in a specific tone of voice – is describing that person or thing in a negative context. As a loser, uncool or otherwise unfortunate. Is that an acceptable slang use of a word that is also used as a description of sexual preference?

Yes: It’s so commonly used that saying something is “gay” has lost any connotation with sexuality, many of my students contended.

“It’s just like saying something is retarded,” said a young woman.

Well put, but not in the way she intended. That’s yet another an example of a denigrating, but socially acceptable, term.

I was surprised: These are liberal-minded, elite, educated Millennials — members of a group that, surveys repeatedly show, has tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality, favors legalizing gay marriage, repealing don’t-ask-don’t-tell rules in the military etc. And yet their vocabulary is so jarring.

It’s not just my class: This website tracks the daily use of similarly crass slang on Twitter (some 40% of whom are in the Millennial age bracket) and it’s well into the thousands.

So what’s up with the disconnect between pejorative vocabulary and survey data on tolerance? And, for research purposes, is this disconnect significant to those who study real vs. stated social attitudes and preferences?