We’ll have a gay old time

The English language is constantly changing and morphing, and it goes where it wants to. Popular opinions shift, and so do the tools of communication. Existing words lose or change their meaning; new words erupt.

This is especially true around words used to describe human sexuality. Gay used to mean “lighthearted” or “merry.” In the traditional Christmas carol “Deck the Halls,” revelers are encouraged, “Don we now our gay apparel.”  The main theme song from the TV cartoon show The Flintstones concluded,

“When you’re with the Flintstones,
Have a yabba-dabba-doo time,
A dabba-doo time, 
We’ll have a gay old time.”

By the end of the 1960s, the word gay had moved almost exclusively to a reference to a same-sex lifestyle. Its sense of “lighthearted” and “happy” is now gone.

The word queer also has moved away from its traditional meaning of “odd” or “strange” and now is used for same-sex issues. This has happened very recently—my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1978 doesn’t even notice that change. Reconciled is a powerful word in the Christian vocabulary—it refers to the atoning work of Jesus Christ to bring holy God and sinful people back together again in a happy relationship. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that term is universally understood as a “gay-friendly” congregation, supportive of gay membership, ordination, and marriage.

Ironically the word homosexual has now dramatically fallen out of favor with its one-time advocates. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination now views that word as an offensive term. Responding to that pressure, the Associated Press’ influential style guide was altered in 2006 to discourage its use. The American Psychiatric Association’s widely used DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, once considered homosexuality a form of mental illness. Not anymore. That changed in 1973.

Changes in the meaning of imagery are also part of this discussion. For millennia biblical believers viewed the rainbow as a powerful reminder of the story of God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9). The same-sex movement appropriated the rainbow as its logo, and now it is the universal “flag” for the pride movement. (I wonder how long traditionalists will be able to use the word pride in its usual sense?) Creationist Ken Ham refuses to yield that symbol, however. At his Ark Encounter in Kentucky, he has bathed in rainbow lights the enormous model of Noah’s boat. He writes, “The Ark is lit permanently at night with a rainbow to remind the world that God owns it and He decreed it’s a sign of His covenant with man after the Flood—Christians need to take back the rainbow as we do at the Ark Encounter.”

Usages may change, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of six books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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