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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

out (v.)

(1990’s | activese, journalese | “expose”)

The verb “to out” may have come into existence in 1990. If not, it was right around there somewhere. Associated closely with gay culture, the verb followed the adjective, as in “out and proud,” which followed the adverb. As far as I can tell, the chain goes back to the verb phrase “come out,” which was used as early as the forties, according to Lighter, to mean “announce that one is gay” — although the idea was that you did so within the gay community, not to the world at large, as we would think of it now. My guess is that this usage sprang from the language of debutantes; in gentler days, to “come out” meant to participate in one’s first ball, thus to enter social circles and the giddy cycle of romance and (ultimately) marriage. “Come out of the closet” was a later elaboration, the idioms “in the closet” and “out of the closet” having arisen in the sixties (Lighter again). But “come out of the closet” was used matter-of-factly in non-gay contexts as late as 1990, harking back to skeletons more than sexual orientation. “Out” was commonly used as a verb in advanced circles by the middle of the decade and downright common by 2000. It’s a transitive verb; when an indirect object is required, it comes after “to” (as in “he outed me to my mother”). It goes with “as” when a precise category is required (“outed as a foot fetishist”).

The usage of the adjective “out” — known to be gay — goes back several decades; all that remained was the leap across the great part-of-speech divide into verbhood. New circumstances changed the social context, putting pressure on the language and causing the formation of a new verbal outcropping. The eighties saw both the spread of AIDS and the ongoing rise of gay political activism (purely by coincidence, one supposes). Revealing that someone died of AIDS was considered tantamount to announcing that he was gay. Concerted campaigns to expose gay legislators who voted against the interests of the gay community became a popular tactic in the hands of Michelangelo Signorile and ACT UP, the theory being that public servants don’t have the same right to privacy as the rest of us. For generations, publicly acknowledging one’s own same-sex urges was taboo; if anything, announcing someone else’s was even more so. That had changed by 1990, and we got a new verb out of it.

Now the verb is used to cover many more kinds of deviance, a natural and probably inevitable evolution. Any vice or secret habit exposes you to the threat of being outed. An essential part of the meaning of the term is that others find out something about you against your will, something you don’t want them to know. (It is possible to out yourself, however.) Not just any secret is revealed, but a shameful one. There are still those who don’t want their orientation known, but it’s harder to find a gay person in the closet now, and the repercussions of coming out are milder than they used to be.

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