by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©2001 Resource Books All rights reserved.

fairy n. from Middle English afire fairyland, fairy people, from Old French Faeroe, from fee fairy, from Latin Fatter, goddess of fate, from datum fate; 14th century.

  1. a mythical being of folklore and romance usually having diminutive human form and magic powers
  2. usually disparaging: a male homosexual

Men in my age group constitute the one minority to which, considering the grim alternative, all males aspire.  Still, it is hardly a compliment to be called a "codger."

Dictionaries give its meaning as "an eccentric old man." Now, the word has an ironic origin that dates back to the mid-18th century as an alteration of "cadger" from the verb "cadge" to get along by begging, from cage, which is a back formation from Middle English cager, to carry wares.  That seems more like productive labor to me, not begging.  Carrying wares is what I did when I was a whole lot younger than I am now, so I can live with "codger" (see Quient).

The word "geezer" is something else.  Its etymology doesn't make any sense at all.  Dating back to the late 19th century, "geezer" is now merely another slangonym for "codger," but it comes from Scots guiser, one in disguise. Who the hell would want to disguise himself as an eccentric old man!

Being a target for disparagement does make me more aware of derogative terms inflicted on other minorities.  Consider the word "Limey," for example (with the capital letter in most places, since it stands in for Englishman).  It is widely thought that the term was first applied to 18th century sailors and derived from "lime-juicer," a smirking reference to the maritime use of lime squeezings as a dietary source for vitamin C to prevent scurvy, which is a disease marked by spongy gums (ugh), loosening of the teeth, and a bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes.

One might hope that by now "Limey" may be no more offensive to an Englishman than "Yankee" is to an American.  According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997), what was "originally a contemptuous term and an international slur, 'Limey' is now considered a rather affectionate designation." In any case, at least the L-word makes historical sense.  Something else, too.

Like Yankee, there is only one use for Limey.  It was not purloined from some other application with a different sense.  The previous sentence deserves an exclamation point.  Persons who think up terms to disparage others are not always so considerate.  Generally they simply plunder the English Language.

Take the word "fairy."  Please (with apologies to the late Hennie Youngman).  Appropriated as a popular slam-word, "fairy" has itself gotten slammed, along with "fairyland" for children, where a "fairy tale" of enchantment might occur.  Peter Pan's exhorting the audience to "save the fairy" has become merely a cheap pun for snickering adults.

Something quite similar can be said about the adult word "queer," by the way.  Dating back to the early 16th century, "queer" was once a solemn adjective with abundant uses, expressing mild degrees of oddity, unconventionality, even borderline insanity.  Once embezzled and spent as hurtful currency, "queer" lost most of its value in polite discourse, and the English Language is the worse for it, I think.  If one is setting about to disparage some minority, wouldn't it be more civilized to create a brand new word?

Finally, if one wants to offer a euphemism for one's own community, one would be well advised to consider the consequences for outsiders before usurping a word that is already in linguistic service.  For a case in that point, of course, consider the word "gay," a venerable term, which dates all the way back to the 14th century.  "Gay" was once an adjective with senses that include merry, happily excited, keenly alive, exuberant, having or inducing high spirits, bright -- even brilliant.

Hey, I would like to apply those meanings to my own minority.  Sure beats "codger."

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