On the origins of the word “gay”

by Mr Wainscotting

One of the whines I hear whenever homophobia is discussed in the mainstream media is the old canard “BUT GAY USED TO MEAN HAPPY BUT THEN TEH HOMOZ STOLE IT!!!111” It’s a common complaint that I may have mentioned before, and while it holds an element of truth, if you try to half-sell this duck*, I will always assume you’re a douchecanoe.

* Obscure 17th century literary references FTW!

It’s often pulled out whenever someone tells people not to use the word gay in the negative, but it’s also pulled out for almost every other discussion of homophobia I’ve come across. I could turn this into a discussion of how the privileged try to maintain control by manipulating the very terms we use to describe ourselves, but instead, I’m going to have a cursory glance over the etymology of the word ‘gay‘ (I say ‘cursory’, it’s actually rather complicated):

The word first entered the English language some time in the 12th century, adapted from the Old French word gai, forms of which are also found in Provençal, Portuguese, Old Spanish and Italian, and is thought to come from Old High German wâhi, which means ‘pretty’.

The word milled around for a few hundred years, meaning joyous and mirthful, and carefree. That last one is important as it soon led to it’s use as a euphemism for immorality and those “addicted to social pleasures and dissipations”† — they were carefree about the conventional societal mores. The earliest use of this that I could find was in 1637 From James Shirley’s Lady of Pleasure.

† From my copy of the OED, Compact Edition, 1971

From here, it kind of went two ways. With men, it focused on the ‘addicted to social pleasures’ part, but with women, it focused on ‘immorality’ — by 1825 it had become slang for prostitute (a gay house being a brothel). The connotations of sexual immorality started to catch up with men as well, but it still implied heterosexuality. Soon, gay man came to mean womanizer — there was also the term Lothario, from the name of a character in Don Quixote, which also meant womanizer, and the term gay lothario meant an immoral seducer (of women).

Another meaning of the word focused on notions of being lighthearted and free, which led to the term gay man being used well into the 20th century to mean a middle aged bachelor — he’s unattached to a wife and therefore free (funny how a wife is both a man’s property and his burden, but that’s a whole other issue). It also came to be applied to women too. Jane, a British comic strip that ran in The Daily Mirror from 1932 to 1959, featured the exploits of Jane Gay, whose name was a reference to her carefree lifestyle with no permanent partner, and had nothing to do with homosexuality (though, since she would always inadvertently lose her clothes, it was probably also overlapped with the ‘immoral’ meaning above).

A mixture of these two meanings (sexually immoral and middle aged bachelor) started to play together. Men who remained bachelors (and were therefore gay) tended to be, at least in popular stereotypes, not interested in women, and perhaps interested instead in men. While psychologists had started to treat sexuality as an innate thing from the late 1800s, society as a whole still regarded homosexual acts to be a deviancy, and so the term gay as a euphemism for sexual immorality started to be used more and more to mean homosexual.

It’s interesting to note that the word straight was used to imply conventionality (or of a woman, chastity).

No, not that kind of gay cat...

It’s here that I must make a brief aside, as there was another use of the word gay that also played it’s part. That is the term ‘Gay Cat.’

Gay Cat dates back to as early as 1893, and was American English slang for ‘young hobo’ who would do occasional or seasonal jobs and get paid wages, and would become a vagabond again until he could find more work. During this time, he would often attach himself to an older tramp. The older tramps often despised them for “preying” off them, but others would often use them as sex slaves. Through this, gay cat became slang for ‘homosexual boy.’

By the 1920s (though, probably starting earlier) those within homosexual subcultures had started appropriating the word as a code word for other homosexual men. (Remember, this was a time when being identified as homosexual risked imprisonment in hard labour camps, or worse. The appropriation was not an act of organised, cynical manipulation by a bunch of radical deviants — it was an adaptation of pure survival.) The 1929 Noël Coward operetta Bitter Sweet contained a song with the line

And as we are the reason
for the “Nineties” being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.

The “nineties” refers to the 1890s, called the ‘gay nineties’ due to them being a bright and showy time of wealth and opportunity. But the gay nineties here is a double entendre, as the ‘green carnation’ is a reference to Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality was well known.

By the middle of the 20th century, gay was well known to refer to sexually immoral lifestyles (and straight now specifically implied heterosexuality). Further spurred along by ‘gay (i.e. frivolous and showy) apparel‘ being associated with effeminacy and camp, the word came more and more to predominantly mean homosexual. (It came to mean homosexual man, probably because of women’s invisibility in most narratives prior to the feminist movement). The mainstream was using it, and very much in the negative:

‘the “gay” bars flourishing all over the US attract even the more respectable deviates’

Time, 21 January, 1966, p14. ‡

And it wasn’t until the early 70s, after the Stonewall riots, when gay liberation became a politicised movement, that organised groups started wholesale claiming the word gay publicly. Before then, during the 50’s and 60’s, groups used the term homophile.

But all that happened in the U.S. In New Zealand, gay didn’t mean homosexual at all until gay liberation hit our shores (though it was creeping in throughout the 60’s). Before then, we used the word camp (or it’s variant kamp — a word that also has a long and interesting history). When New Zealanders talked of men “going gay”, it referred to those who committed adultery.‡

‡ From Chris Brickell’s fabulous book Mates & Lovers, p278.

From the 1970’s onwards, it had acquired it’s position as meaning ‘homosexual man’ in the common vernacular.

You can hardly look at that history and accuse us of stealing it — we claimed a word that was already being used against us to pretend that we didn’t exist (that’s the point in a euphemism). We claimed a word that had connotations of freedom and used it to represent our freedom and liberation at a time of great institutional oppression (in 1950, the U.S. State Department declared homosexuals a security risk). A word that used to mean happy as well as frivolous, carefree, immoral, adulterer, womanizer, whore. Think about those last four next time you listen to The Flintstones opening theme song.

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10 thoughts on “On the origins of the word “gay”

  1. For some time, “straight” has been troublesome to me. Because it implies the opposite is “bent” or corrupt. That straight is good and anything else is bad.

    Your post puts some of that into context. Thank you for that. I appreciated that.

    • That is right, and why ‘straight’ was used to imply heterosexuality — and it still retains connotations of frankness and honesty (which date back to 1530) when used outside of sexuality. But since the 50’s, most of that has washed away.

    • I should also add that the word’s connotations of seriousness (e.g. ‘to play it straight’) set it up as an antonym of gay, which meant frivolousness, before homo-/hetero-sexuality was applied to them.

  2. Remember that “strait” means narrow, as in “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life” (Matt 7:14) and “Cook Strait”. So I just use “strait” as the opposite of gay.

  3. Hi – I’m in a serious debate regarding the word “gay” and it’s origins. Wondering if you have links/references to your source materials? I would really appreciate any input. Thanks!

    • Three of the references are cited in the article, but you probably won’t be able to find them online, unless you have access to Time archives or the Oxford English Dictionary. The other was from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

      I had other bits and bobs of knowledge that I’d picked up here and there, but as this is a blog post and not a scholarly article, I didn’t exactly keep a bibliography…

  4. I always thought it was started as an Acronym “Good As You” so interesting to see the evolving heritage of the word. Thanks

  5. Pingback: Mr Wainscotting

  6. That’s very interesting. But, isn’t this just the evolution of a word that at one time meant one thing, and evolved to mean another? I would sure like to use its original definition to make a better meaning word in the English dictionary. But, doesn’t gay just mean homosexual, stupid, fruity, on and on? Or would this just be another definition to add upon for different situations? Was in an argument.

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