Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Queer Intimations (2018-07-07)
Royalty-free image courtesy of photographer Edonalds at dreamstime.com
, june 2013
For anyone below the age of twenty who isn't sure what people did before the availability of the endless rabbit holes via search engines and the ever-uneven wikipedia, the answer is there were plenty of rabbit hole openings available via the household dictionary. Sometimes they didn't turn out well, because either the definition writers got lazy or the dictionary editors nodded, leaving frustrating loops similar to "sick - to be ill," and "ill - to be sick." Well, if a person ran around that loop enough times, they would certainly be sick and ill. Pleasantly often, especially in the case of dictionaries compiled on historical principles like the OED or open to providing etymological information to complement the definitions like the various websters, the related cross-references provided a decent rabbit hole to take fifteen minutes or so with. Others have intriguing etymological information and some striking cross-references, while leaving a mystery outstanding. This happens to be the case with my OED on the subject of the word "queer."
Originally I looked "queer" up explicitly to see its earlier meanings and its etymology in light of some reading that reminded me again of how much I like the sound and shape of the word, but have had to drop it from my working vocabulary in the present circumstances. It had so much potential to be applied in subversive ways, or at least so I thought, even if such attempted witticisms as "queer as a three dollar bill" fall flat for anyone who can find examples of real life three dollar bills that were ordinary in their time by means of a quick search engine query. Thinking back, the only reason I can give for my earlier belief that "queer" could become a useful word subversive notably of heteronormativity is that it was and is, a slur flung at gay men. This is not a very good reason. Maybe it seemed a much stronger one nearly two decades ago, and the test of time has done it in.
"Queer" is a genuinely unusual word of doubtful origin according to my OED, which adds that it may be derived from the german word quer meaning oblique or perverse. Certainly the two words seem unambiguously related. Its application to gay men waited until the early twentieth century, at least as recorded in writing. This is the tricky aspect of historical dictionary making, it is only as good as the references the contributors have found, so first occurrences of many words are revised to earlier and earlier dates all the time based on new finds in more or less obscure publications. Spoken language changes much faster than its written counterpart, and that adds to the challenges of catching examples when so much is likely never recorded anywhere even if at one point everyone was using a given word or expression. So I can't help but wonder if a wild speculative reconstruction of the origins of the word "queer" such as the following might actually stumble on a bit of the truth.
Many english speakers are familiar with the term "werewolf," which preserves an older word for an adult male human being, "wer," the germanic version of the lating equivalent, which is "vir." The analogous term for an adult female human being was "cwēn," and the generic was indeed once "man," but this only made it to old english, referred to as anglo-saxon until quite recently. Leaving aside the unpleasant political twists and turnings that rendered "man" into a pseudogeneric and the mishaps that led to the loss of useful explicit and different terms for adult human beings of different sexes, the two now lost terms in modern english seem to have an interesting coincidental resemblance to "queer." That is, make a portmanteau out of them as Lewis Carroll would write, and "cwēn" plus "wer" gives "queer" and even has the right vowel shift.
As I said, this is wild and speculative, and any plausibility it seems to have depends on the fact that it hinges on the shared linguistic heritage of english and german. There isn't any real evidence to confirm that ancient germanic language speakers who would have used the words "cwēn," "wer," and "man" lived with rigid gender stereotypes that they were expected to perform to the letter every day, or else face censure and violence. There isn't obvious evidence for the sorts of gender roles studied by nineteenth century anthropologists under the incorrect and inappropriate label "berdache" either, which seems to correlate with the existence of a word translated by europeans at least as "man-woman." Yet it is thought-provoking all the same, on one hand because language is full of instances of relationships and explanations that look convincing but no more than that, on the other because it begs the question of whether a wider range of gender roles wasn't more common in asia before the renaissance than is usually acknowledged.