Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Same-sex muddle

There were a lot of things that irritated me about Bob Rae's appearance on the Mercer Report (although I seem to be alone in having actually found the skinny-dipping funny), but nothing more than this exchange:

Rae: There are people who are driven by nasty theories, by particular, uh--

Mercer: Give us an example, Bob.

Rae: Oh, all this resistance to-- uh-- to uh-- same-- same-sex?
Now, don't get me wrong, Bob, I appreciate your political views on this particular matter. But let me enlighten you about something. 'Same-sex' is an adjective. It's impossible to "resist" an adjective. You can resist a noun, or you can resist a noun with an adjectival modifier, but an adjective alone? No can do.

Now, I make money at this sort of thing in real life (yeah, yeah, I know, "get a real job"), and so I've trained my expert eye on Rae's usage here. And my professional opinion on what's happening is that the noun in the noun phrase 'same-sex marriage' has been deleted from Rae's sentence, leaving the poor, lowly adjective to carry the whole phrase on its tiny little back. Furthermore, it seems that Bob Rae is far from alone in this odd little linguistic innovation. In fact, within just the last couple of months, it's spread across Canada like a bad rash at a nudist camp. But the thing is, you can drop the noun in a noun phrase, but you can't prevent the adjective from clinging to other nouns. And that's when we start moving from eye-rollers to some real head-scratchers.

Last week, for example, the Globe and Mail told us about the same-sex debate. I can't be the only one who envisioned a gaggle of men at podiums without a woman in sight. Around the same time, the Winnipeg Free Press predicted a same-sex showdown--perhaps a horde of gunslinging women out in the town square, glaring menacingly at each other? Would the same-sex opponents the Globe mentions be Bob Rae himself and his friend-cum-nemesis, Michael Ignatieff, or two male hockey heroes from opposing teams? Would the same-sex ban referred to by the Wisconsin State Journal be one of those weird singles clubs that insists on gender balance at events? And then there's my personal favourite--the legal furor that's reportedly erupting over a same-sex proposal. Perhaps that's something like:

Adam (nervously): Um, we've been together a long time. And I think, maybe, it's about time we thought about...getting married.

The part that really muddies the waters, though, is that in deciding to start dropping nouns from noun phrases all willy-nilly, papers like the Globe haven't stopped using 'same-sex' as a perfectly ordinary adjective meaning "of or relating to two or more persons of the same gender." In one of today's headlines, for example, they tell us about advocates of same-sex schooling. Now, is that supposed to mean "schooling involving people of the same sex," or is it supposed to mean "education about same-sex (marriage)"? I'm honestly not sure anymore.

Perhaps Bob Rae can enlighten us.


Matt said...

I'm with you on this one. Of course, the fact that Bob Rae waffled on same-sex spousal benefits when he was NDP Premier is also an issue for me, and raises questions about his leadership style.

And if you'll permit me a bit of extremely juvenile camp humour - using the phrase "friend-cum-nemesis" in a post related to gay issues is just too much fun!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, but all I've got on that front is the juvenile camp humour. The Globe's Michael Valpy is the true reigning king of Bob Rae/Michael Ignatieff slash fiction: He turned up at Mr. Ignatieff's apartment for a weekend, and stayed six months, U of T's two former golden boys consoling each other far from home.

I am not making this up. (We're not allowed to make things up.)

Niles said...

It appears to me 'same-sex'is the new substitute for saying 'homosexual' because homosexual is just too darned formal and same-sex is friendlier for some reason.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Sure, that's what's going on with the adjective. But can you imagine the word 'homosexual' being used without the noun? It would be hilarious!

"The Conservatives are going to reopen the debate about homosexual."

"My sister and her girlfriend had a homosexual last week."

KevinG said...

I think, if you're willing to show your bum on TV you should be allowed to abuse the odd adjective :)

I noticed the same thing when I watched it -- same-sex what?

Rivka said...

"My sister and her girlfriend had a homosexual last week."


That's weird usage indeed. I don't think I've seen that happening in the U.S. press - although I'm afraid that's partly because the Right is so good at getting their terms ("traditional marriage," "family values") adopted as the standards for public discussion.

Anonymous said...

the Right is so good at getting their terms ("traditional marriage," "family values") adopted as the standards for public discussion.

It really pleases me that "same-sex marriage" has caught on as the appropriate term in public discourse in Canada, because of the whole bisexual-inclusivity thing and because it's so clearly a term originally adopted by the proponents thereof. When I hear someone say "homosexual marriage", then I can be pretty sure they're either bigoted or American. Or, um, never mind.

hobbitbabe (who can never remember what IDs I have where)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I don't think I've seen that happening in the U.S. press

Well, I did sneak in a Wisconsin link in my post above...but in general you're right, it's mostly weird-ass Canadian usage. Maybe the headline writer in Wisconsin was even a Canadian. *grin*

Niles said...

My point was the phrase 'same-sex' has become code to the general population meaning 'civil rights for homosexuals topics' So, you have writers getting caught up in presumptive code shorthand instead of actually writing things out coherently.

So, is it just bad usage or evolving informal language, where nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns and they can hop from spot to spot depending on the speaker and context?

I know I've personally had my problems with 'transitioning'. Are media held to vocabulary guides anymore?

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Bob. I am against same-sex. I like variety-sex.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Hmm, I think you may be on to something. It's true that 'same-sex', in this usage, refers specifically to the fight for gay rights, not to gayness in general. Which means that the new meaning of 'same-sex' isn't identical to the words 'gay' or 'homosexual' at all--it means something more like 'same-sex activism.' And it usually refers to marriage, but it doesn't always.

Far be it from a linguist to define "bad usage" (linguistic scientists don't try to alter language to suit our purposes any more than astronomers try to alter the heavenly bodies to suit theirs), but this one really is kind of ugly, isn't it? Not to mention confusing as hell to anyone not in the thick of it.



Niles said...

Ugly? You want ugly, work in a large corporation for ugly formations of words. The permutations never end...tend to come out of HR and management...and it's always in deadly earnest.

Josh Gould said...

How about "transformative liberal education" or "community engaged learning"? These were part of Acadia's Strategic Plan - at least the original version of it, which was soundly panned by faculty.

Jen said...

I, for one, have no resistance whatsoever to same-sex! ^_^

I don't know when I signed up for it, or how I got it, but I'm on the Canadians for Equal Marriage mailing list, and somehow I like the term 'equal marriage', though some people have to think twice before they have any idea what you're talking about.

Overall, I think I prefer English terminology to French, which uses the terms homo and pédé, which I just can't get used to. :-S (Can't get used to the French keyboard, either, but that's another matter...)

West End Bound said...

I know I've personally had my problems with 'transitioning'. Are media held to vocabulary guides anymore?

A personal gripe of mine is the media terminology: "She went missing."

God, that annoys me!

Anonymous said...

As someone with too much time on my hands I have seen the same sex noun for almost as long as same-sex (or equal) marriage has been the subject of debate. Don Newman, and his various talking head guests and reporters on Newsworld "Politics" have used same-sex as a noun for a long time. Same with the farts on CTV Question Period.

There's something about the use of "same-sex", both as noun and adjective, that seems designed to jump out at us as different or odd in the context of marriage.