Aces like Words, part 1: Filling in the Gaps

(this is the first part of my rather last minute response to the February Carnival of Aces.)

One of the many things that I’ve noticed about the ace community is: We like to make up words for things. Within the community, we have basically developed a specialized jargon for discussing our experiences, our relationships, and our lives. When I run ace 101 workshops, one of the first things I always do is a quick run-through of some of the common words we use.

Why is it that we do this? The reason is that the language we are given is insufficient to express our experiences. As we have overturned common paradigms about sexuality, we begin breaching new ideological ground that has never been covered before – and our language has not had time to catch up with that yet. As we gather and talk amongst ourselves, we find ourselves struggling to articulate our shared experiences – we see the same patterns cropping up again and again, and we begin forming concepts, but we do not yet have the words to express them.

In linguistics, we talk about “lexical gaps” which occur when a concept is recognized but a language lacks any word to describe it. This often occurs in translation, when a concept that has been recognized and named in the source language has no equivalent term in the target language; another common example is when a language has words for one concept “hot” but not another related concept like “cold”.

In our case, it happens when we have begun to build shared concepts out of our experiences, but don’t have any way to translate that into spoken language.

So what do we do? We fill those gaps.

One common way that lexical gaps can be filled is through “borrowing” from other languages. In this case, we borrow many terms straight from the jargons of other sexual orientations – terms like “sexual orientation”, “sexual attraction”, “coming out”, etc.

Other times, we take existing words but redefine them slightly to suit our needs: for example the word “platonic”: Originally, this referred merely to nonsexual love, which could be both romantic or nonromantic. Over time though, it has come to mean not only nonsexual, but also nonromantic – a trend which is also seen outside the ace community too, but not as clearly. In turn, the ace community has also clarified “romantic” as an alternative to “sexual” – a shift which does not always translate directly back into common English, where romantic often has sexual overtones.

And other times, we make up new words entirely. There are many different ways to derive these: some, like “squish”, are created by extending metaphorical mappings behind other terms: If a romantic attraction is like being “crushed”, perhaps a platonic one is like being “squished”? Others are created by compounding other terms, like in “queerplatonic.” And still others are just pulled out of someone’s imagination and stick because there’s no clear alternative – as in cases like “Zucchini” and “OTJ”. These last ones tend to get replaced if suitable alternatives arise, but it’s noticeable that even rather silly terms can spread like wildfire when they fill a much needed gap.

for a description of one area where there are gaps that need to be filled, see Part 2: The ambiguity of “Friendship”.

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About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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