LAST WEEK, WE TALKED about how “geek” had become almost a cool term for a computer savvy, but perhaps socially inept person. That happened with little input from the “geeks” themselves.
The same thing cannot be said of “queer.” Originally a derogatory name for a homosexual, “queer” has been embraced by some in the nonheterosexual community. In response, some activists in the gay community (to use a broad term) started calling themselves “queer” in a prideful way.
Since it first showed up in English about 1513, “queer” has always meant something not normal, something peculiar, something odd. Counterfeit money was “queer”; someone who is sick might say they “feel queer”; playground bullies would call someone “queer” without knowing or intending any sexual connotations.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the noun “queer” was first used to mean homosexual by the Marquess of Queensbury, in 1894. The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang says the adjective “queer” began to mean “homosexual” about 1914, mostly in the United States, and notes it was “derogatory from the outside, not from within,” a hint that it was being embraced as a self-description even then.
Dictionaries show a progression for “queer.” The 1949 printing of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary lists just one slang usage for “queer”: “Counterfeit money.” (Keep in mind that general-circulation dictionaries back then often shied away from words or definitions that could be considered offensive, so they could be shared with schoolchildren.) The 1965 printing of Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition, lists “queer,” noun and adjective, as slang for homosexual. Not offensive slang, just slang.