The word "gay" is now the most frequently used term of abuse in schools, says a report. How did it get to be so prevalent and why do children use homophobic insults to get at each other?
Every generation of schoolchildren has them, the playground put-downs that can leave a pupil's reputation in tatters among their peers.
For the current generation, "gay", "bitch" and "slag" are the most frequently used terms of abuse, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
They are used by children of all ages, from nursery school upwards. But the worst offenders are secondary school pupils, says the teaching union.
WHAT TEACHERS HEAR
# Gay (83%)
# Bitch (59%)
# Slag (45%)
# Poof (29%)
# Batty boy (29%)
# Slut (26%)
# Queer (26%)
# Lezzie (24.8%)
# Homo (22%)
# Faggot (11%)
# Sissy (5%) Source: ATL
The most popular by far is "gay". Of the teachers interviewed, 83% said they heard it being used regularly and much more than its nearest rivals, bitch (59%) and slag (45%). So how did it achieve this dubious honour?
The word has had many meanings over the centuries, often sexual, says Clive Upton, professor of Modern English Language at Leeds University.
"In the early 19th Century it was used to refer to women who lived off immoral earnings," he says. Around the 1970s it was claimed by the homosexual community as a descriptive term for their sexual orientation, now its most popular meaning. By the 1980s it was finding its way into schools as a playground insult.
"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral.
"It's only in the last four years that I've documented it being used so much by young people. It's what we call a 'vogue' word, which is a fashionable word."
One reason for this increase in use could be because "gay" has partly lost its sexual connotations among young people, he says. While still pejorative, for the majority of youngsters it has replaced words such as "lame".
"I have interviewed scores of school kids about this and they are always emphatic that it has nothing at all to do with hostility to homosexuals," says Mr Thorne, compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. "It is nearly always used in contexts where sexual orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant."
The ATL survey seems to say otherwise, lumping it in with clear insults such as poofter and batty boy. But Katie, a 12-year-old from Colchester, knows it in different context. A bad pair of trainers is much more likely to be called "gay" than a person, she says.
"It's used as more of a way to tease a friend rather than have a real go at someone. I wouldn't call someone 'gay' because I know that's sort of bullying them."
“ Terms such as 'batty boy' are clear homophobic insults and much more straightforward to deal with ”
The use of "gay" in this particular way was first recorded at the end of the 1970s and developed among US high school students, says Mr Throne. It's not only youngsters in the UK who have recently adopted it, the same has happened to the German equivalent, schwul, he adds.
This mutation of the word is one reason why using "gay" as in a pejorative sense often goes unchallenged. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles caused controversy in 2006 for his casual use of the word. He said he'd used it to describe something as "rubbish" and was backed by the BBC.
"The word has what we call multiple coinage and that's the problem," says Mr Thorne. "While teenagers are generally using it to mean 'lame' it can separately be used as a homophobic term of abuse."
It's this ambiguity that prevents some teachers from tackling pupils who use it in a negative sense, says ATL. They are afraid of "blowing trivial matters out of proportion".
"It's tricky because it's often a casually throwaway remark and said without any obvious malice," says Deborah, a teaching assistant from Essex. "Terms such as 'batty boy' are clear homophobic insults and much more straightforward to deal with."
But while "gay" may have changed for some, it is still being used as a means of bullying, as are many other homophobic insults (see table, above). Last year, the Westminster government announced the first guidelines for schools on how to deal with homophobic bullying.
Gay lobby group Stonewall says 65% of young gay people experience homophobic bullying. And many who aren't gay also get labelled as such.
"It's a form of peer group control," says psychologist Helen Cowie. "Boys have to be masculine and macho and anyone who isn't must go along with it or face being bullied. It's a form of bullying that domineering people seek out vulnerable people and school age is a time of emergent sexuality which is itself a vulnerable time."
Fellow psychologist Ian Rivers says the potency of such words is in the fact they "go to the very core of who we are". Yet sexual orientation is also invisible.
"It's not about your heritage or your race, it's not about things which someone can see." So it can't even be challenged, he says. "How can children demonstrate that they are heterosexual. There's no effective recourse and this is what makes it so effective as a bullying tactic."
Donald Christie, professor in the Department of Childhood and Primary Studies, says "sexual orientation" is a source of potential vulnerability. "If there's an area of life that children themselves feel insecure about they're aware of their own vulnerability. The whole point of bullying is about identifying and accentuating weakness in others."
Ms Cowie has observed schools developing children as "peer supporters" to listen, mediate and support bullied children. But "boys have a "harder time" adopting such roles because the attributes are not seen as masculine.
"In one school we studied they were known as queer supporters," she notes.
Recalling her time as a boys' secondary school teacher in the 1970s, Ms Cowie recalls how "obsessed" pupils were with homosexual innuendo. "It didn't seem to matter what you read to the class they'd always find an gay innuendo."Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping