Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

July is Gay Pride Month, and this morning in San Diego begins a parade celebrating our LGBT residents. This is a good time, then, to reflect on the origins and meanings of the word gay.

As thousands of newly minted words have added to the currency of our language, the meanings of the words many of us grew up with have changed under our eyes and ears. A hunk no longer means simply a large lump of something, and rap isn’t just ’60s talk. Pot means more than a cooking utensil, and a bar code is no longer ethics for lawyers or the etiquette of behavior in a café. A pound is no longer just a unit of currency or measurement but that tipsy tic-tac-toe grid that sits above the 3 on your keyboard or below the 9 on your telephone.

And the computer, the most deeply striking technology of our lifetimes, has powerfully challenged our sense of so many hitherto uncomplicated words – back up, bit, boot, cookie, crash, disk, hack, icon, mail, memory, menu, mouse, scroll, spam, surf, virus and window.

Of all the words that have undergone a semantic shift this past century the one that rattles more cages and yanks more chains than just about any other is gay, which entered the earthly stage more than 700 years ago from Old French gai, “merry.” Older Americans like me grew up with gay as an adjective that meant “exuberant, high spirited,” as in the Gay Nineties and gay divorcee. Starting as early as the 1930s in the mass media, gay began traveling the semantic path we linguists call specialization, making the same journey as words such as chauvinism, segregation, comrade and colored. In the 1938 movie “Bringing Up Baby,” the character David, played by Cary Grant, when asked why he is wearing women’s clothing replies, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden.”

Shortly after World War II, activists popularized the concept of Gay Liberation – occasioning much hand-wringing among some heterosexuals, who lament that a perfectly wonderful word has been lost to general usage, wordnapped by the homosexual community. But as much as some heterosexuals believe they need gay, the gay community needs it more – as an emblem of self-esteem, as a more fulfilling word than homosexual, because it communicates a culture rather than concentrating on sexual orientation. For those who decry the recent metamorphosis of gay, I recommend that henceforth they be merry.

Last month, I visited the First Folio exhibit at the Central Library, the only California stop on the national tour. One of the interactive features of the display consisted of the statement “Shakespeare is relevant to me and to today’s world.” Visitors responded by removing a Shakespeare-themed pin (who would refuse a free pin?) from one of five large tubes marked Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Unsure, Agree and Strongly Agree. The pins unfailingly disappeared increasingly from left to right. In fact, the staff periodically had to refill the right-hand tubes, meaning that quite the majority of attendees agreed or strongly agreed that Shakespeare endures as a Living Will. As the Bard himself wrote at the end of his Sonnet 18 (and completely in words of one syllable):
“So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

A child’s ability to distinguish musical rhythm is related to his or her capacity for understanding grammar, according to a recent study from Mary Gordon at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

Consider the similarities between speech and music. They each contain rhythm, pitch and intonation. In grammar, children’s minds must sort the sounds they hear into words, phrases and sentences, and the rhythm of speech helps them to do so. In music, rhythmic sequences give structure to musical phrases and help listeners figure out how to move to the beat. Perhaps children who are better at detecting variations in musical timing are also better at detecting variations in speech and therefore have an advantage in learning language, Mary Gordon suggests. She hopes her research may help reverse the recent decline of music education in our schools. “Those of us in the field of music cognition know that it does have a unique role in brain development.”

At 7 p.m. July 24, I will perform “Fascinating Facts About Our Presidents” at Coronado Playhouse. (619) 435-4856 or CoronadoPlayhouse.com.