“My business and your law practice ought to make a pretty gay team, Dave.” – Mark Twain (Century Magazine, Feb. 1894)
“I remember” the pearl-clutchers are wont to say, “when being gay just meant being happy.” There’s a certain defiance to this statement, often leaving me to infer the continuation as “…and people like you didn’t exist”.
Nonsense, of course. Similarly nonsensical is the assumption that this humble three-letter word enjoyed a centuries-long untroubled existence as a synonym for “happy” before getting co-opted by the Gay Linguistics Agenda* some time around 1967.
As 2020’s Pride events are beginning to announce their move online (or reluctant postponement entirely), today’s blog post takes a closer look at the etymological history of the “G” in “LGBT+”.
*Seriously though: I 100% would join.
Earliest uses of the word gay
Our trail starts with Anglo-Norman, the dialect of Old French circulating in 12th century England. The adjective gai was used of a person to describe a bright or cheerful countenance (compare the French gai today). By the 13th and 14th centuries gay was used adjectivally of anything (or anyone) bright, colourful, or generally carefree, and this definition has indeed persevered for a significant period of time in tandem with its later variants.
Gay also appears at a noun in this period, something which may be more recognisable today in compound forms such as nosegay – a little bundle of flowers traditionally given as a gift. Now obsolete, gays would have been frivolous amusements for children such as toys or picture books. As recently as 1922, inventor Leo Gerstenzang developed the first commercial cotton swabs and launched them on an unsuspecting public as Q-Tips Baby Gays. Bless him.
As with many other compliments, it didn’t take long for alternative uses of the word to acquire a snide subtext. Bright became gaudy and carefree became careless and sooner or later a gay person could just as easily be understood as a lascivious or hedonistic one.
It’s worth emphasising that these two interpretations could comfortably co-exist: in Troilus & Criseyde (1385) Chaucer describes a lover’s heart as “fressh and gay”, whilst in The Miller’s Tale (1390) a “gay gerl” is a wanton one.
It’s this latter definition which is believed to have developed into our contemporary understanding of gay as referring to homosexuality. From the early 17th century, to go gay was to deviate from the straight and narrow in favour of a gaudier, more dissolute lifestyle.
“Besides being very handsome, there are reasons to fear that Mr. Charles Victor Fremy was sometimes very, very gay.”
National Police Gazette, 4 Jan 1879
In the US, going gay had a particular meaning among Quakers: renouncing plain living and giving oneself over to pleasures such as drinking, gambling, and dancing (in other words, behaving like the Church of England). In the 20th century there are a few recorded instances of the same phrase with regard to absconders from the Amish community.
In the late 18th-19th centuries, a gay woman could also be a prostitute and a gay house a brothel – both euphemistic given the word’s more mainstream interpretations.
Gay in the 20th century
Given the word’s plurality of interpretation – and the forced clandestine nature of non cis/het relationships – there is some debate as to the first recorded use of gay meaning a homosexual person or quality. This meaning is generally understood to have emerged as US slang, and the OED cites its first example as Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Plays (1922): “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then… They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there..not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”
Opening with queer icon Gertrude Stein discussing a relationship between women raises another consideration: then, as now, gay is either inclusive or exclusive of the lesbian community depending on your source.
It’s raining (gay) cats and dogs
Before I leave you, I want to share a couple of the more outré definitions I found while researching this blog post – all (for better or worse) now obsolete.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance, the art of poetry and literary criticism was known as the gay science (I’m saying nothing) and the period from 1890-1900 was, due to rapid prosperity for some, looked back on as The Gay Nineties (or, indeed, The Naughty Nineties).
In the early 20th century, ‘falsies’ (padded bosom-enhancers) were known as gay deceivers, while getting gay was to be overly familiar or presumptuous.
And don’t go forgetting the difference between a gay dog (a self-indulgent Lothario) and a gay cat (an apprentice vagrant, who acts as lookout for his older master).