I recently proofread a fascinating student dissertation, based on a study of osteoarthritis in medieval skeletons. Among other things, the work looked at how sex (as in male/female) is different from gender, and that individuals do not necessarily fit into either label.
However, in her title and throughout the work, the student used the word ‘queer’ to refer to certain types of individuals. Well, forgive me for jumping to conclusions but I was very worried about this from a PC point of view. My conclusion was that she meant homosexual; and was using an informal term, which is of course derogatory. Though why, in this day and age, anyone would do that in a formal study was beyond me.
It was of course (after a rather embarrassed call to check), correct usage. There is a theory ‘queer theory’, which states that some people cannot be defined by the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ and are therefore unusual. Not gay. In fact this was rather crucial to the study as a whole, looking back, so I was mortified.
But it did make me think about the word queer, which suddenly had taken on a whole new definition – yet another one in fact. It can mean odd. It can mean sick or ill. It can mean spoil or ruin, as in to queer someone’s pitch (which always makes me think of The Apprentice). In Queer Street means being in debt. A queer fish is a strange person. Acting queerly simply means acting out of the ordinary, or not in an accepted way. The Thesaurus does not offer it as any synonym other than for ‘surprising’, or ’perplexing’ or ‘funny.
So why did I jump to my conclusion? It may be just bad timing. I grew up at a time when ‘queer’ was definitely a derogatory term, and widely used to taunt and hurt. And I lived through the period when it became less slanderous and more informal; some using it deliberately to refer to themselves in order to neutralise its power, which while effective probably strengthened this particular definition.
But definitely a useful lesson to learn. Words mean different things to different people, and never assume you know how they will be perceived. Age, gender, class and education will all affect how people think what you mean; and so writing can get complex. In fact, language can be queer.
With thanks to Catriona.