A long time ago, I didn’t know I was a hebe. I was born Jewish and raised Jewish, but hebe? Never heard of it. That was mostly a function of geography. I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore with an extremely high concentration of Jewish families—where the Levys and Cohens in the high school yearbook went on for pages, where I could count far more temples than I ever could churches. Antisemitism, in our cultural biodome, was mostly an abstract concept.
One afternoon, however, I was standing in front of our synagogue with books in my arm, waiting to be picked up from a bar mitzvah lesson. Two boys a couple years older than me walked by and scanned me up and down. Then one shouted, “Hey! Are you a hebe?” Under the circumstances, I could make a pretty fair guess what he meant, but I couldn’t be sure. So I looked back at him and offered only a shrug that said, in effect, “dunno’.” And with that, the word hebe died a little death.
I thought about that moment last weekend, when my 12-year-old daughter was having a Harry Potter-themed sleepover with a few of her friends. One of the girls was recalling a moment in a Potter book and came up short as she groped for a word. She was looking for ferret, but what came out was faggot. Another girl immediately jumped. “That’s a bad word,” she said. The first girl asked what it meant and after she was told, simply nodded her head at the nastiness of the thing. The girls, in effect, had gang-tackled the word, first by opprobrium, then by indifference—and then they went back to their playing.
The slow, inexorable sunset of this most-used and most-loathed gay slur is by no means complete. It still burns brightly and horribly in far too many places and far too many lives, but its day is undeniably passing — a process only hastened by President Obama’s inaugural address, which included an explicit call for the rights of “our gay brothers and sisters” and memorably invoked the lessons of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. How this particular bit of hate speech finally dies will be a lesson both in the way a language and, more important, a culture matures.
The roots of the anti-gay f-word are not what most people think they are. Popular lore has it that suspected homosexuals were once put to death by fire, and that piles of sticks — or “faggots,” in the antiquated term — were used as kindling. The pile-of-sticks definition is correct, but everything else appears not to be. “There’s no historical evidence that this is how and why it originated,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the website Vocabulary.com. “Its first recorded use was in the early 20th century, when it was applied to women. As with words like queen, it then became an epithet for gay men.”
But there’s value even in the etymological misconception. Gay people may never have been put to the torch, but the widespread belief that they were serves to sensitize people to the very real bigotry—and often very real danger—they’ve faced over the centuries. “Even if it has no historical truth it has a different kind of truth as a lesson,” Zimmer says.
Epithets fade not just by public censure and growing disuse, but by appropriation. Queer used to pack a terrible punch of its own until gays picked it up and began using it in chants (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”), as a name for an activist group (Queer Nation) and in the “queer studies” programs offered in many college curricula.
The Obama campaign pulled off a similar bit of linguistic legerdemain with its adoption of the term “Obamacare” to describe the clunkily named Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Obamacare was coined by opponents of the new law, hoping to reprise the Hillarycare slur that worked so effectively in 1993. But this time the administration wasn’t biting. “I have no problem with people saying ‘Obama cares,’” the president said in a town hall meeting in 2011. “I do care.” The fact, of course, was that his detractors weren’t saying that at all, but Obama was signaling that he’d disarm the word by embracing it, and his supporters followed suit.
Racial slurs have a different arc of eradication. There may be no more-radioactive term in the English language than what we now almost always refer to as the “n-word”—itself a coy means of linguistic sidestepping that is a sign of how perilous it is to utter the thing in full, even in conversations about language. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the n-word euphemism only as far back as 1985. It came into much wider use in 1995, during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when testimony showed that former L.A. detective Mark Fuhrman had used the full slur promiscuously during his career and news anchors were looking for a way to report the story without throwing out an n-bomb in every other sentence.
For a word with so acid a past, appropriation and indifference are not options—or at least not by themselves. African-American rappers and comedians may use it all the time, but there is a hard social prohibition against nearly anyone else saying it aloud. In 2009, when I was writing a young adult novel set on a Civil War-era plantation, I asked my publisher how best to deal with the n-word, since I was hoping for historical authenticity and the use of the term was ubiquitous at the time. “Don’t deal with it,” was his immediate instruction. “Don’t touch it. It’s a grenade with the pin pulled.”
All epithets, even such ugly ones, push back against their own demise, and when it’s clear that they’re doomed, their remaining adherents find coy ways to nod in their direction or come up with slippery substitutes. During the early years of the civil rights movement, when Negro was a perfectly acceptable term but its ugly cousin was already falling out of favor, southern politicians like Alabama Gov. George Wallace grew fond of the pronunciation “nig-ra,” luxuriating in the first syllable and then surrendering only grudgingly to the hedging of the second. Deliberately misusing the noun form of a group’s name as an adjective is another too-cute way of giving offense while pretending to do nothing of the kind. Jewish food and Jewish doctor mean the same thing as Jew food and Jew doctor, but one version is intended to sting. This is the same schoolyard device many members of the GOP continue to use, with their endless variations on the term “Democrat party” instead of Democratic party, including George W. Bush‘s reference to the “Democrat majority,” and Bob Dole’s deathless “Democrat wars.”
Just why such a construction should be offensive at all is unclear—aside from the fact that it fails to honor the right any group should have to determine what it’s called. Zimmer thinks it may have something to do with the way the terms clang against the ear. “There’s a stress clash,” he says. “If you have two stressed syllables next to each other instead of having a non-stressed one between them it’s just harsher.” The -ish and -ic suffixes in effect serve as shock absorbers.
The death of anti-gay hate speech is no doubt being hastened by the head-spinning speed with which gays as a group—to say nothing of gay marriage—are becoming an unremarkable and even quite traditional parts of American life. In this end stage of the f-word’s life, linguistic guard rails still need to be put in place—with children reminding one another about which words hurt, and public figures like shock jocks getting pilloried for using a hate term that people of good will avoid. Extinction may be the eventual fate of all species; for some species of words, the end of the gene line cannot come too soon.