cover of book

Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English
by William Leap
University of Minnesota Press, 1996
Paper: 978-0-8166-2253-5
Library of Congress Classification PE3727.G39L43 1996
Dewey Decimal Classification 427.973086642

Sample Conversation:

Conversation between two men, a salesclerk (S) and a customer (C).

S: Can I help you find something?

C: No thanks, I am just looking. [Pause while customer looks at merchandise]

C: What are you asking for these? [Points to set of grey sweatshirts]

S: Oh. I'm afraid they're not on sale today. But that colored shirt would look nice on you. [Points to a pile of lavender sweatshirts, which are on sale]

C: Yeah, I know. I own a few of them already. [Grins]

S: [Grins back; no verbal comment]

C: Thanks for your help. [C walks off]

The first book-length analysis of the language used by gay men.

Do gay men communicate with each other differently than they do with straight people? If they do, how is "gay men's English" different from "straight English"? In Word's Out, William Leap addresses these questions in an entertaining account that looks at gay men's English as a cultural and a linguistic phenomenon.

Whereas previous studies of "gay language" have centered almost entirely on vocabulary, word history, and folklore, Word's Out focuses on the linguistic practices-cooperation, negotiation, and risk taking-that underlie gay men's conversations, storytelling, verbal dueling, self-description, and construction of outrageous references. Leap "reads" conversations for covert and overt signs of gay men's English, using anecdotes drawn from gay dinner parties, late-night airplane flights, restaurants, department stores, and gourmet shops, and from other all-gay and gay/straight settings. He incorporates material from life-story narratives and other interviews and discussions with gay men, from gay magazines, newspapers, and books, and from events in his own life.

The topics addressed include establishing the gay identities of "suspect gays," recollections of gay childhood, erotic negotiation in health club locker rooms, and gay men's language of AIDS. Leap shows how gay English speakers use language to create gay-centered spaces within public places, to protect themselves when speaking with strangers, and to establish common interests when speaking with "suspect gays," and explores why learning gay English is a critical component in gay men's socialization and entry into gay culture.

Provocative and potentially controversial, Word's Out provides fascinating insight into the politics of gay experience by exploring the connections between language and daily experience in gay men's lives.

"Word's Out is the first comprehensive linguistic ethnography of the North American gay male speech community. Word's Out is a significant contribution to language and gender research in general and to lavender linguistics in particular." --American Speech

"The book is a superb example of gay studies at its best and as it should be. It deals with real people and uses theory only to clarify points, not to cloud issues or to display the author's cleverness." --Lambda Book Report

"This work explores important insights into the politics of gay experience." --The Reader's Review

"How gay men's English is different from straight men's English is one of the topics studied in this fascinating look at language and orientation." --Feminist Bookstore News

"This book presents engaging analysis of a large number of instances of 'Gay English,' including banter at parties and gyms, poignant memories of trying to understand adolescent feelings of difference, several excerpts from fiction, a pair of 1980s popular songs, toilet graffiti, 1987 responses to two sex ads, interview responses, and some folk semantics." --Anthropological Linguistics

William L. Leap is professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. His recent articles on gay English have appeared in New York Folklore, High School Journal, and in his edited collection Beyond the Lavender Lexicon (1995).

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