The word gay originally had the meaning of being carefree, happy or lighthearted for quite a long time, but this slowly changed conveying a series of different meanings, and in Modern English the word refers to homosexuality. The word itself dates back to the 12th Century although uncertain; it originates from the Old French word gaie that means joyful or merry which seems to be Germanic in its origin (Nardi 248). The word has several cognates in other languages such as Old Provencal gai, Old Frankish gahi. The Old French and Old Frankish words are both from Proto-Germanic word ganhwaz that means sudden which is a cognate with the Dutch word gauw that means fast or quickly, Westphalia Low German word gau with the same meaning as the Dutch word gauw, and the German word gahi meaning abrupt or sudden. In the late 12th Century, gay was used as a surname: Phillips De Gay.
The English word gay was first recorded in the 14th Century in a poem titled ‘Blow, Northerne Wind,’ which appears in the MS Harley 2253 which is a manuscript found in the British Library (Liberman 67). In the poem’s context, it meant beautiful:
“Heo is dereworþe in day, (she is precious in day)
graciouse, stout, ant gay, (gracious, stout and gay)
gentil, iolyf so þe iay, (gentle, jolly as the jay)”
Before the end of the 14th Century, the word conveyed a series of different meanings moving from beautiful to bright to showy and finely dressed. By the beginning of the 15th Century, the familiar meaning of lighthearted or carefree had already emerged and was established. It was recorded in the Chaucer’s book titled ‘Troilus & Criseyde’ in 1385:
“Peraunter in his briddes wise a lay” (By chance, in his birds sang a song).
“Of love, that made hire herte fresh and gay”. (Of love, that made her heart fresh and gay).
The question we ask ourselves today is how did the traditional meaning of the word gay change to mean homosexuality? This could be an extension of the sexual implication of its meaning, carefree, that implies a willingness to ignore the usual sexual norms. Many people believe that this meaning came about recently, in the 20th Century, or even earlier, but it came to be widely used in the 1960s. It was first used to implicate immorality in the heterosexual sense and is dated back to 1597 that meant immoral or an addiction to pleasuring. This was documented in John Payne’s ‘Royall Exchange’ which had written that despite loving their wives, some gay professors kept secret minions in order to avoid shame. Another suggestion of the immoral form of the word gay was dated back in 1637 from the following excerpt:
“But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay
Whan that he wolde han my bele chose”
By 1890, the word gay referred to promiscuity. The word was often put together with another noun such as house, woman and man to form the words ‘gay house’, ‘gay woman’ and ‘gay man’ that referred to a brothel, a prostitute and a womanizer respectively. Prostitutes were also referred to as ‘gay ladies of the evening.’
Another explanation, which is very common, is that the meaning of the word as homosexuality originated from the slang term gay cat, which meant a young man who accompanies an elder one, with the suggestion of sexual favors being exchanged for protection and instruction. The term dates back to the late 19th Century as early as 1893 as published in the Century magazine: “The gay-cats are men who will work for “very good money,” and are usually in the West in the autumn to take advantage of the high wages offered to laborers during the harvest season…” In Rawson’s “Wicked Words” uses the word gay to describe both male and female prostitutes in late 19th Century in London.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the word gay was said to be used among homosexuals themselves like some sort of password in order to find each other and continued to use this underground meaning for some time while still the traditional meaning was being used openly as described in the Dictionary of American Slang.
Gertrude Stein using a sly repetitive scheme with sexual intent documented the use of the word to mean homosexuality in the 20th in 1922 from the passage “Miss Furr & Miss Skeene” (Stein 23). In 1938, the word was used for the first time to depict homosexuality in the film “Bringing up Baby” (Devine and Katrina 15). In the film, a man due to circumstances had worn women’s clothing, and when questioned he replied that he had just decided to go gay all of a sudden”. Others argue that he meant to mean that he just decided to do something frivolous instead of meaning gay. This was attributed to the fact that most of the people at the time were unfamiliar to homosexuality and, therefore, the meaning neither had nor picked up yet.
By the 1940s the antonym of the word gay, which is straight, had been established as an implication of seriousness and conventionality and slowly began to imply heterosexuality while the term gay was used to describe hedonistic, carefree and wild behaviors as illustrated in the film the “Gay Divorcee”. The word gay also gave the connotation of frivolous and showy dressing; hence, the gay apparel was associated with effeminacy to describe the feminine mannerisms and behavior in men. The term began to get a wider definition and, sometimes, used in place of other words such as queer and odd (Burton 45).
Homosexuality in the mid-20th Century was perceived to be a mental illness and was listed as a mental disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In England, being identified as a homosexual at the time was a criminal offence and one would be sentenced to a jail term for such an offence. However, this was revoked in 1967 Sexual Offences Act (Crozier 61). Any words used to refer to homosexuality were deemed as a taboo in the society, considered being highly offensive and people began to use rather innocent adjectives to describe the act such as sporty and artistic.
The 1960s marked the period where the word gay shifted its meaning from frivolous and carefree to what is commonly known as homosexuality. Books such as “the intelligent woman’s guide to man-hunting” by Albert Ellis and Hubert Selby’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” began to popularize this meaning. At this time, the traditional meaning was still conveyed in some instances such as the popular television show “the Flintstones” which stated in its theme song “We’ll have a gay old time”.
The meaning of the word gay today as we know it refers to homosexual men, however, it sometimes can be used to refer to homosexual women as well depending on what context the word is being used. Today, there is not as much prejudice against gay people as it was in the sixties when the word was used to refer to homosexuality and was considered to be vulgar and crude. Young people today use the word gay to refer to something that is not cool or lame and this meaning is pervasive in a number of situations. The term gay is sometimes used in a negative sense to refer to something weak or inferior. For example, most men would consider ballet weak when compared to playing sports and would often refer to a man dancing ballet as gay (Bryant and Dennis 150).
The word can also be used stereotypically to mean colorful depending on the context. This is because gay men are associated with fashion, colorful dressing and the like. For example in this context, when seeing a man with a fashionable bright pink shirt, the shirt would be described as gay or the man himself may be described as gay since he seems to be fashion oriented (Carroll and Paul 288). Gay men are also associated with effeminacy and the word would be used to describe a man displaying feminine mannerisms and behaviors. For example, if a man had posture like a woman while sitting or standing or displayed his emotions in a way a woman would the word gay would be used to describe his behavior despite the fact that he may not even be gay. In society, today, the word is rarely used to describe joyful or fun but rather has maintained its meaning of homosexuality and used to describe actions perceived as homosexuality.
The word gay in its self is an adjective, but it has other forms and can be either a noun or an adverb. As a noun, it becomes ‘gayness’ with the meaning of homosexuality and as an adverb it becomes ‘gaily’ to mean merrily and carefree. The noun used to refer to being carefree and merry is ‘gaiety’. As an adjective, the word can take either its comparative and superlative form which is ‘gayer’ and ‘gayest’ respectively. Other adjectival forms include the words ‘non-gay’ to refer to a person who is not a homosexual and ‘quasi gay’ to refer to a bisexual.