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  • Is "gay apparel" gay?

    In this holiday season, Hallmark wants you to ditch your gay apparel and don your fun apparel
    In this holiday season, Hallmark wants you to ditch your gay apparel and don your fun apparel

    Hallmark—“when you care enough to send the very best”—has caused a stir by taking the “gay” out of Christmas. One of Hallmark’s new Keepsake tree ornaments for 2013, the Holiday Sweater, revises a line from the well-known carol, “Deck the Halls.” The company ditched the traditional, “Don we now our gay apparel,” because in many contexts, gay means ‘homosexual,’ replacing it with “Don we now our fun apparel,” which Hallmark felt would be more acceptable to a general audience that includes prudish adults, impressionable children, and fundamentalists.

    According to the Los Angeles Times, Hallmark initially responded to critics of this move by arguing that the words “gay apparel” were not necessarily authentic to begin with, but rather translations from a Gaelic original, so they could be replaced by other, synonymous words. The company insisted that, since “gay” today means something different from what it meant in the nineteenth century, that “could leave our intent open to misinterpretation.” In other words, even though the Supreme Court says same-sex marriage is constitutional, Hallmark didn’t want to be seen by conservative customers as endorsing a gay agenda.

    After controversy over the sanitized carol swirled in the media and on the internet, Hallmark amended its response: “We never intend to offend or make political statements with our products and in hindsight, we realize we shouldn't have changed the lyrics on the ornament.”

    Don we now our fun apparel

    Hallmark's Keepsake Sweater Ornament says, "Don we now our fun apparel." Critics objected that the company "cleaned up" the language of the original.

    But they did change the lyrics, and despite the apology, the sweater ornament is still available on the Hallmark website, though in a tacit acknowledgment of the controversy over the wording, the web copy now reads,

    When it comes to Christmas sweaters, gaudy can be good! Hang up this flashy sweater to make your tree's outfit complete. With its catchy phrase, Don we now our FUN apparel! everyone will be in on the joke.

    What joke, you might ask? The joke that Hallmark got into trouble because it shied away from a word with sexual connotations? The joke that the company tried to explain away its attempt to take the “gay” out of Christmas by referring to a Gaelic original?

    But “Deck the Halls” is not a translation of a Gaelic original. In 1862 the Scottish poet Thomas Oliphant took the tune of the Welsh Nos Galan, a New Year’s song that had nothing to do with Christmas, boughs of holly, or any kind of clothing, gay or otherwise, and put his own words to it, creating what would then become one of the most popular Christmas carols.

    The original version of Deck the Halls, 1862 

    The original “Deck the Hall,” a Welsh air with words by Thomas Oliphant, was published in 1862 as a song for New Year’s Eve.

    When Oliphant wrote “don we now our gay apparel” he surely meant something like ‘brightly colored, festive’ clothing. But gay had other meanings too. As early as Chaucer’s day, gay could mean ‘lascivious,’ and by the sixteenth century it could refer to someone who was dissolute, wanton, flamboyant, or uninhibited. By the nineteenth century gay could serve as a euphemism for prostitution. None of these raunchy or negative nuances stopped Oliphant from using gay in “Deck the Halls.”

    By the 1930s in the United States, gay also began to acquire a slang sense referring to homosexuality. Nineteenth-century children might snicker thinking gay referred to libertines or prostitutes, but they were still allowed to sing about “gay apparel.” Two centuries on, Hallmark decided that it couldn’t risk smirks around the tree, so it cleaned up the language on its ornament.

    Cary Grant says,

    Going gay: In “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), Cary Grant, playing a nerdy archeologist, loses his patience as he explains why after a long series of mishaps he’s wearing a woman’s dressing gown: “I just went gay, all of a sudden.” That wasn't in the script. Apparently, Grant ad libbed the line, and director Howard Hawks left it in, which may explain how it got past the censors of Hays office who were intent on erasing sexuality from Hollywood movies. The OED cites this as an example of an early homosexual reference for the term, though it also cites earlier uses by Gertrude Stein and Noel Coward dated 1922 and 1929, respectively.

    Hallmark is not the first to take gay out of “Deck the Halls.” An alternative version of “Don we now our gay apparel” has been in circulation for some time: “Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel” (John Hullah, The Song Book, 1884). To be fair, there’s no indication that Hullah changed the words to euphemize the carol, and why this would be an improvement over Oliphant’s phrasing isn’t clear: filling the mead-cup could refer to social drinking, but draining the barrel surely suggests excess. But apparently it’s more acceptable today to refer explicitly to drunkenness in a carol often sung by children than it is to risk implying homosexuality. 

    Alternative version reads  

    This version, from The Song Book by John Hullah (London: 1884), has a different third line: Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel.

    Hallmark’s action also suggests that gay has become so associated with homosexuality that it can no longer retain its earlier sense of ‘bright or festive.’ It shouldn’t be surprising when speakers abandon a word that’s become ambiguous, especially if one of its senses is or has been taboo. Hallmark shunned gay because of its sexual connotation. But the fact that gay has been embraced in recent years both by the gay community and by English speakers in general as a positive, non-taboo synonym for homosexual makes it even more likely for the word’s other primary sense, ‘bright, festive,’ to fall into disuse. With the transformation of a negative term for homosexual into a positive one, we’re less likely to call clothing gay (Don we now our gay apparel), or to use the word as a synonym for ‘happy’ (Despite all this rain, I still feel kind of gay), for fear of being misunderstood, or understood only too well by the middle school set.

    Compounding gay avoidance is its latest slang transformation: calling something, or someone, gay can signal 'that's uncool.' The OED traces this use of gay, which it labels chiefly U.S. slang, to the late 1970s, defining it as,

    Foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of; ‘lame’. derogatory (freq. considered offensive).

    Many American schools have mounted campaigns to get students to abandon this slang usage because it can be offensive (there are similar campaigns against the slang use of retarded, not to mention lame, used in a similarly negative and potentially offensive sense).

    In all the hubbub over the sweater ornament, I’ve seen no comments questioning the grammatical appropriateness of Hallmark’s substitute wording, “Don we now our fun apparel.” Surely if the company had created the phrase from scratch rather than by bowdlerizing a traditional song, the grammatical purists would have rushed in to object to this use of fun as an adjective. Apparel can be gay, grammatically, and it can be funny, they would surely say, because funny is the adjective, though funny is not what Hallmark means here. But apparel can’t be fun, because fun is a noun.

    But the purists would be wrong, as they often are when it comes to language. The OED recognizes fun as both a noun and a verb, and although it is silent on adjectival fun, it does offer a number of citations where fun is an adjective (for example, “American Eskimos are fun dogs to own,” s.v. American). Merriam-Webster traces adjectival fun back to 1846, and the American Heritage Dictionary (5e) recognizes it as well. Though AHD warns in a note, "writers may want to avoid it in more formal contexts,” the dictionary also assures us, "The usage has become widespread and must be considered standard."

    Perhaps Hallmark, which unabashedly calls Christmas, Christmas, instead of “the holidays,” made a public relations error with its “Don we now our fun apparel” sweater ornament. The company further "explained" why it chose fun to replace gay: 

    The trend of wearing festively decorated Christmas sweaters to parties is all about fun, and this ornament is intended to play into that, so the planning team decided to say what we meant: 'fun.' That's the spirit we intended and the spirit in which we hope ornament buyers will take it.

    Perhaps with its sort-of-apology-explanation Hallmark has recovered from the bad publicity, although it’s not clear to me why anyone would want such an ornament for their tree (Snoopy or Commander Spock, yes, but a Christmas sweater without snowflakes or reindeer? Really?). In any case, the episode is an enlightening illustration of the complex give-and-take of language marketing and language politics, not to mention the impact of internet pressure on everyone from Middle schoolers to Middle Eastern despots to greeting-card manufacturers.

    UPDATE: According to AdWeek, Hallmark has withdrawn the sweater ornament, although the last time I clicked, it was still available on the company's website.

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