On the radar: “Bent”

I first became aware of bent as referring to something other than physical crookedness in 1980, when Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” (starring Richard Gere) opened on Broadway, and reviews explained that the title was a Britishism connoting homosexuality. I subsequently learned that it’s also a British adjective meaning crooked in the sense of dishonest or corrupt.

But I didn’t know which sense was meant in today’s New York Times article about the NBC comedy “Community.” The piece had a quote from Jim Rash, and described him as the actor “who plays the bent Dean Pelton on the show.”

To find out, I could have called up my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda, who loves “Community.” But clicking over to Wikipedia was easier. There I read that Dean Pelton

seemingly has a crush on Jeff, and uses him to improve the school’s fledgling extra-curricular programs, pressuring him to join the debate team, edit the school’s newspaper, and convince Troy to play quarterback for the football team. Among other hints at sexual proclivities such as late-night visits to truck stops and public restrooms, he has had a growing fetish for people in dalmatian costumes, which he believes he has pursued in secrecy, but seems to be common enough knowledge to the students and faculty.

So there you have it.

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13 responses to “On the radar: “Bent”

  1. This blog entry prompted me to look up the term, “get bent,” which was a popular dismissive among us innocent but daring high school boys in the 1950s. Sources (e.g., http://ask.metafilter.com/15493/Get-Bent) indicate that the term has had a variety of meanings over time. Curiously, Google’s Ngram Viewer shows it’s use alternately waxing and waning across the years, with a “spikier” history in the U.K. than in the U.S. One may wonder if these ups and downs coincide with new meanings being applied to the term as years progressed.

  2. Hal, that’s a new one on me–is it equivalent to “get lost”? I also neglected to mention a distinctly American meaning for the adjective: drunk, high, etc.

  3. The first verse from ‘Going Straight,’ a UK sitcom about life in jail:

    All my life I’ve been..
    bent as a corkscrew, bent as an ‘air pin
    bent as a figure eight.
    Bent as a wish bone, bent as a bed spring
    now I’m bent on Going Straight.

    The full lyrics are at: http://www.porridge.org.uk/gslyrics.html

    The programme was called ‘Porridge,’ a UK slang term for doing time in jail. Has that one made it to the US yet?

  4. There’s also another British idiom (referring to dishonesty I think) in line with what David has written above:
    “Bent as a nine bob note.” Or, “As bent as a nine bob note.” (Usually said in context with an individual or item.)

    The saying refers to that old note of British currency (pre-decimalization) the “bob”, worth 10 shillings; (the nine bob note, therefore, being false currency indeed.)

    No idea how far back it dates from, but definitely before 1971 I’d expect.

    • I’ve never heard “bent as a nine-bob note” but Frank Shaw and Fritz Spiegl recorded “queer as a nine-bob not” in Lern Yerself Scouse, a not-entirely tongue-in-cheek book about Liverpool slang published in 1965. It drew on Shaw’s experiences of growing up in Liverpool over several decades. They also record “queer as a clockwork orange”, a phrase picked up by Anthony Burgess for the title of a 1962 novel.
      ‘Bent’ meaning ‘homosexual’ has dropped out of British use in recent years, and is more likely to be used in its sense of dishonesty or unscrupulousness.

      • Martin James

        “‘Bent’ meaning ‘homosexual’ has dropped out of British use in recent years, and is more likely to be used in its sense of dishonesty or unscrupulousness.”

        Yes, that use has disappeared, I’m glad to say, but “bent” remains a prejorative, frequently used in connection with politicians, expenses scandals, etc.

        Police used to make a distinction between “bent for the job” (obtaining convictions by false evidence etc -implicity approved) and “bent for yourself” (taking bribes etc. -implicitly disapproved) For all I know they may still use those expressions. Both practices are still rife, as well exemplified in recent years.

    • ‘Bent’ has always meant a form of dishonesty in this country as well as one of the numerous and often humourous euphemisms for male (but not female) homosexuality.

      Additionally, a ‘bent copper’ is, obviously, a corrupt policemen. When I was young a deformed penny (old money) was a bent copper, because a ‘copper’ was a copper coin – as well as being a policeman.
      Incidentally, in old money a shilling (one 20th of an old pound) was a ‘bob’ – 10 shillings was ‘ten bob’. 5 bob was also a ‘dollar’ (from the far-off days when the exchange-rate gave 4 dollars to the pound). ‘Old’ money British slang is a subject in its own right……. Sadly almost lost now.

      Toodle-Pip!

    • In the 70′s Texan songwriter and one-time Cricket Sonny Curtis wrote a song called “Leavin’ the Straight Life Behind” with the line “Havin’ a Ball on a couple o’ bob”..

    • Minor cavil: before decimiliSSSSSSSSSation in 1971 a “bob” was 12 pence, ie a shilling. There was 20 bob/were 20 shillings to the pound and a banknote circulated worth 50% of a pound in other words 10 bob. An (imaginary) 9 bob note was obviously worth less than an (everyday) 10 bob. However, despite all this numismatic argle-bargle, I’m afraid “bent as a nine-bob note” was still a vaguely offensive euphemism for homosexual rather than anything to do with currency.

      For your younger US readers: a Pound Sterling is what the internet calls a GBP. The government’s late-sixties decision to retain the pound at par when decimaliSSSSSSSing its constituent coinage, instantly gave retailers the irresistible opportunity to mark up what yesterday had cost 4/- (4 bob or 20 decimal pence) to 40 new pence (equivalent to 8/- or 40 new pence) on the day after the change. And we Brits swallowed it!!! Hook, line and sinker!

      • Rosalind Mitchell

        Well no, not really czyrko. Decimalisation day (15 February 1971) passed off very smoothly as it happened, The government had, as so often, grossly underestimated the intelligence of the populace and allowed traders to continue in old money for some time after the official changeover day. Almost none did. One of the great myths that grew out fo decimalisation was that it led to the inflation of the mid-70s. No doubt there was some rounding up at the margins, but one of the reasons for maintaining the pound at par was that existing silver coinage would continue in use. I think it would take somebody very stupid indeed to be caught out having to pay eight shillings for what they paid four shillings for the day before, don’t you?

        As for GBP – before general access to the internet, and long before Unicode, the ISO/SWIFT currency codes were the standard in the international money markets. I should know, I worked in the City supporting the FOREX traders amongst others. When you have a limited character set you haven’t got room for a lot of special symbols. Because a symbol is available in your local character set doesn’t mean it’s available elsewhere so even if you could type a £ sign there’s no guarantee that the receiver in Tokyo or Saõ Paulo would see it as one.

  5. I’d say that in England bent is now rather archaic for homosexuals with gay and queer being much more more common (both which can be either positive or negative depending on tone and context – ‘gay’ as used by male schoolboys for instance is almost invariably an insult).

    So its primary meaning would now be corrupt as in ‘bent copper’ – a policeman who takes bribes – and in fact I’d say its rarely used outside of that specific context,

    As for the nine-bob note I remember queer as being more common than bent but either would work – and suspect that the use of bent for homosexual came about precisely from queer becoming primarily a term for homosexual and bent being cognate to it from that phrase.

    But back when we still had shillings and pence and pound notes queer did not always have that sexual connotation and would be as likely to just mean odd, strange, unlikely or peculiar,

  6. Having grown up in south west England, we would always have used “Bent as a nine bob note”, or more commonly, “Bent as a butchers hook”. I had never come across the “Queer as…” version, I wonder if this is a regional thing???
    Bender rather than “He’s Bent” was also a more common turn of phrase in our neck of the woods when regarding a homosexual…
    Generally I would agree that in more recent years it is more common to use bent in describing a corrupt or dishonest person.

  7. Dusty Springfield sent England into a tizzy when she told an interviewer: “Everyone thinks I’m bent, and I suppose I am.” Hot stuff for 1970!

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