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The term gay was originally used, until well into the mid-20th century, primarily to refer to feelings of being "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy"; it had also come to acquire some connotations of "immorality" as early as 1637.[1]

The term later began to be used in reference to homosexuality, in particular, from the early 20th century, a usage that may have dated prior to the 19th century.[1] In modern English, gay has come to be used as an adjective, and occasionally as a noun, that refers to the people, practices, and culture associated with homosexuality. By the end of the 20th century the word gay was recommended by major style guides to describe people attracted to members of the same sex.[2][3] At about the same time, a new, pejorative use became prevalent in some parts of the world. In the UK, U.S., and Australia, this connotation, among younger generations of speakers, has a derisive meaning equivalent to rubbish or stupid (as in "That's so gay."). In this use the word does not mean "homosexual", so that it can be used, for example, of an inanimate object or abstract concept of which one disapproves, but the extent to which it still retains connotations of homosexuality has been debated. [4][5]



The word "gay" arrived in English during the 12th century from Old French gai, most likely deriving ultimately from a Germanic source.[1] For most of its life in English, the word's primary meaning was "joyful", "carefree", "bright and showy", and the word was very commonly used with this meaning in speech and literature. For example, the optimistic 1890s are still often referred to as the Gay Nineties. The title of the 1938 French ballet Gaîté Parisienne ("Parisian Gaiety") also illustrates this connotation. It was apparently not until the 20th century that the word began to be used to mean specifically "homosexual", although it had earlier acquired sexual connotations.[1]

The derived abstract noun gaiety remains largely free of sexual connotations, although it has in the past been used in the names of places of entertainment; for example W.B. Yeats heard Oscar Wilde lecture at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.[6]


The word had started to acquire associations of immorality by 1637[1] and was used in the late 17th century with the meaning "addicted to pleasures and dissipations."[7] This was by extension from the primary meaning of "carefree": implying "uninhibited by moral constraints." A gay woman was a prostitute, a gay man a womanizer and a gay house a brothel.[1]

The use of gay to mean "homosexual" was in origin merely an extension of the word's sexualised connotation of "carefree and uninhibited", which implied a willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores. Such usage is documented as early as the 1920s, and there is evidence for it before the 20th century,[1] although it was initially more commonly used to imply heterosexually unconstrained lifestyles, as in the once-common phrase "gay Lothario",[8] or in the title of the book and film The Gay Falcon (1941), which concerns a womanizing detective whose first name is "Gay." Well into the mid 20th century a middle-aged bachelor could be described as "gay", indicating that he was unattached and therefore free, without any implication of homosexuality. This usage could apply to women too. The British comic strip Jane was first published in the 1930s and described the adventures of Jane Gay. Far from implying homosexuality, it referred to her free-wheeling lifestyle with plenty of boyfriends (while also punning on Lady Jane Grey).

A passage from Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr & Miss Skeene (1922) is possibly the first traceable published use of the word to refer to a homosexual relationship. According to Linda Wagner-Martin (Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and her Family (1995)) the portrait, "featured the sly repetition of the word gay, used with sexual intent for one of the first times in linguistic history," and Edmund Wilson (1951, quoted by James Mellow in Charmed Circle (1974)) agreed.[9] For example:

“ They were, they learned little things that are things in being gay, ... they were quite regularly gay. ”

—Gertrude Stein, 1922

The 1929 musical Bitter Sweet by Noël Coward contains another use of the word in a context that strongly implies homosexuality. In the song "Green Carnation", four overdressed, 1890s dandies sing:

“ Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation...
And as we are the reason
For the "Nineties" being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.

—Noel Coward, 1929 , Bitter Sweet

The song title alludes to Oscar Wilde, who famously wore a green carnation, and whose homosexuality was well known. However, the phrase "gay nineties" was already well-established as an epithet for the decade (a film entitled The Gay Nineties; or, The Unfaithful Husband was released in the same year). The song also drew on familiar satires on Wilde and Aestheticism dating back to Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881). Because of its continuation of these public usages and conventions in a mainstream musical, the precise connotations of the word in this context remain ambiguous.

Other usages at this date involve some of the same ambiguity as Coward's lyrics. Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the first film to use the word gay in apparent reference to homosexuality. In a scene where Cary Grant's clothes have been sent to the cleaners, he must wear a lady's feathery robe. When another character inquires about his clothes, he responds "Because I just went gay...all of a sudden!"[10] However, since this was a mainstream film at a time when the use of the word to refer to homosexuality would still be unfamiliar to most film-goers, the line can also be interpreted to mean "I just decided to do something frivolous." There is much debate about what Grant meant with the ad-lib (the line was not in the script). The word continued to be used with the dominant meaning of "carefree", as evidenced by the title of The Gay Divorcee (1934), a musical film about a heterosexual couple. It was originally to be called "The Gay Divorce" after the play on which it was based, but the Hays Office determined that while a divorcee may be gay, it would be unseemly to allow a divorce to appear so.

Shift to "homosexual"

By the mid-20th century, "gay" was well-established as an antonym for "straight" (which had connotations of respectability), and to refer to the lifestyles of unmarried and/or unattached people. Other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress ("gay attire") led to association with camp and effeminacy. This association no doubt helped the gradual narrowing in scope of the term towards its current dominant meaning, which was at first confined to subcultures. Gay was the preferred term since other terms, such as "queer", were felt to be derogatory.[11] "Homosexual" is perceived as excessively clinical,[12][13][14] since the sexual orientation now commonly referred to as "homosexuality" was at that time a mental illness diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

In mid-20th century Britain, where male homosexuality was illegal until the Sexual Offences Act 1967, to openly identify someone as homosexual was considered very offensive and an accusation of serious criminal activity. Additionally, none of the words describing any aspect of homosexuality were considered suitable for polite society. Consequently, a number of euphemisms were used to hint at suspected homosexuality. Examples include "sporty" girls and "artistic" boys,[15] all with the stress deliberately on the otherwise completely innocent adjective.

By 1963, a new sense of the word "gay" was known well enough to be used by Albert Ellis in his book The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Man-Hunting. However, later examples of the original meaning of the word being used in popular culture include the theme song to the 1960–1966 animated TV series The Flintstones, whereby viewers are assured that they'll "have a gay old time." Similarly, the 1966 Herman's Hermits song "No Milk Today", which became a Top 10 hit in the UK and a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and included the lyric "No milk today, it wasn't always so / The company was gay, we'd turn night into day."[16] In June 1967, the headline of the review of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the British daily newspaper The Times stated "The Beatles revive hopes of progress in pop music with their gay new LP".[17] Also worth noting is that, as late as 1970, the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has the demonstrably straight Mary Richards' downstairs neighbour, Phyllis, breezily declaiming that Mary is, at age 30, still "young and gay."

There is little doubt that the homosexual sense is a development of the word's traditional meaning, as described above. It has nevertheless been claimed that "gay" stands for "Good As You", but there is no evidence for this: it is a folk etymology backronym.[18]


Main article: Homosexuality

Sexual orientation, identity, behaviour

Main article: Sexual orientation

American Psychological Association states that sexual orientation "describes the pattern of sexual attraction, behavior and identity e.g. homosexual (aka gay, lesbian), bisexual and heterosexual (aka straight)." "Sexual attraction, behavior and identity may be incongruent. For example, sexual attraction and/or behavior may not necessarily be consistent with identity. Some individuals may identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual without having had any sexual experience. Others have had homosexual experiences but do not consider themselves to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Further, sexual orientation falls along a continuum. In other words, someone does not have to be exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, but can feel varying degrees of both. Sexual orientation develops across a person's lifetime-different people realize at different points in their lives that they are heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual."[19]

According to Rosario, Schrimshaw, Hunter, Braun (2006), "the development of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) sexual identity is a complex and often difficult process. Unlike members of other minority groups (e.g., ethnic and racial minorities), most LGB individuals are not raised in a community of similar others from whom they learn about their identity and who reinforce and support that identity. Rather, LGB individuals are often raised in communities that are either ignorant of or openly hostile toward homosexuality." [20]

The British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has argued that the term gay is merely a cultural expression which reflects the current status of homosexuality within a given society, and claiming that "Queer, gay, homosexual ... in the long view, they are all just temporary identities. One day, we won't need them at all." [21]

If a person engages in same-sex sexual encounters but does not self-identify as gay, terms such as 'closeted', 'discreet', or 'bi-curious' may be applied. Conversely, a person may identify as gay without engaging in homosexual sex. Possible choices include identifying as gay socially while choosing to be celibate or while anticipating a first homosexual experience. Further, a bisexual person can also identify as "gay" but others might consider gay and bisexual to be mutually exclusive. There are some who are drawn to the same-sex, and may not have sex, and also not identify as gay; these could have the term 'asexual' applied, even though an 'asexual' generally can mean no attraction, and includes heterosexual attraction that is not sufficient to engage in sex, or where the sex act is not desirable, even though titillation may occur.


Some people reject the term homosexual as an identity-label because they find it too clinical-sounding; they believe it is too focused on physical acts rather than romance or attraction, or too reminiscent of the era when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Conversely, some people find the term gay to be offensive[citation needed] or reject it as an identity-label because they perceive the cultural connotations to be undesirable or because of the negative connotations of the slang usage of the word.

Style guides, like the following from the Associated Press, call for "gay" over "homosexual:

“ Gay: Used to describe men and women attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. Preferred over homosexual except in clinical contexts or references to sexual activity.[22] ”

Gay community

Just as the word "gay" is sometimes used as a shorthand for the term LGBT, so is "gay community" sometimes a synonym for the "LGBT community." In other cases, the speaker may be referring only to homosexual men. Some people (including many mainstream American journalists) interpret the phrase "gay community" to mean "the population of LGBT people."

Cultural relativity of the term

The concept of a "gay" identity and the use of the term "gay" itself may not be used or understood the same way in non-Westernised cultures since modes of sexuality may differ from those prevalent in the West. [23]


The term "gay" can also be used as an adjective to describe things related to homosexuals or things which are part of the said culture. For example, while a gay bar is not itself homosexual, using the term "gay" as an adjective to describe the bar indicates that the bar is either homosexually-oriented, caters primarily to a homosexual clientèle, or is otherwise part of homosexual culture.

Using it to describe an object, such as an item of clothing, suggests that it is particularly flamboyant, often on the verge of being gaudy and garish. This usage pre-dates the association of the term with homosexuality, but has acquired different connotations since the modern usage developed.

Using the term "gay" as an adjective where the meaning is akin to "related to homosexual people, culture, or homosexuality in general" is a widely accepted use of the word. By contrast, using "gay" in the pejorative sense, to describe something solely as negative, can cause offense.

Use as noun

The label "gay" was originally used purely as an adjective ("he is a gay man" or "he is gay"). The term has been in use as a noun with the meaning "homosexual man" since the 1970s, as in "gays are opposed to that policy." Although some dislike this usage, it is common particularly in the names of various organizations such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and Children Of Lesbians And Gays Everywhere (COLAGE). It is sometimes used as a singular noun, as in "he is a gay", such as in its use to comic effect by the Little Britain character Dafydd Thomas.

Generalized pejorative use

When used with a derisive attitude (e.g. "that was so gay"), the word gay is pejorative. While retaining its other meanings, it has also acquired "a widespread current usage" amongst young people, as a general term of disparagement.[24][25] This pejorative usage has its origins in the late 1970s. Beginning in the 1980s and especially in the late 1990s, the usage as a generic insult became common among young people.[25]

This usage of the word has been criticized as homophobic. A 2006 BBC ruling by the Board of Governors over the use of the word in this context by Chris Moyles on his BBC Radio 1 show, "I don't want that one, it's gay," advises "caution on its use" for this reason:

“ "The word ‘gay’, in addition to being used to mean ‘homosexual’ or ‘carefree’, was often now used to mean ‘lame’ or ‘rubbish’. This is a widespread current usage of the word amongst young people... The word 'gay' ... need not be offensive... or homophobic [...] The governors said, however, that Moyles was simply keeping up with developments in English usage. [...] The committee... was "familiar with hearing this word in this context." The governors believed that in describing a ring tone as 'gay', the DJ was conveying that he thought it was 'rubbish', rather than 'homosexual'. [...] The panel acknowledged however that this use... in a derogatory sense... could cause offence in some listeners, and counselled caution on its use. ”

—BBC Board of Governors, [24]

The BBC's ruling was heavily criticised by the Minister for Childen, Kevin Brennan, who stated in response that "the casual use of homophobic language by mainstream radio DJs" is:

“ "too often seen as harmless banter instead of the offensive insult that it really represents. [...] To ignore this problem is to collude in it. The blind eye to casual name-calling, looking the other way because it is the easy option, is simply intolerable." ”

—Tony Grew, [26]

Shortly after the Moyles incident a campaign against homophobia was launched in Britain under the slogan "homophobia is gay", playing on the double meaning of the word "gay" in youth culture.[27]

Usage in other language

The German equivalent for 'gay', "schwul", which is etymologically derived from "schwuel" (hot, humid), also acquired the pejorative meaning within youth culture.[28]

Given name

The first name Gay is still occasionally encountered, as is the spelling Gaye. (795th and 1295th most common in the United States, according to the 1990 U.S. census[29]). It was also used as a male first name. The first name of the popular male Irish television presenter Gabriel Byrne was always abbreviated as "Gay", as in the title of his radio show The Gay Byrne Show. It can also be used as a short form of the female names Gaynell and Gaynor and as a short form of the male names Gaylen and Gaylord. The writer Gay Talese's name is derived from Gaetano, his grandfather's name.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. GLAAD: AP, New York Times & Washington Post Style
  3. APA Style Guide: Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language
  4. BBC ruling on use of the word gay.
  5. Anti-gay abuse seen to pervade U.S. schools. Archived from the original on 2007-03-01.
  6. Publications. Oscar Wilde Society (1 November 2008). Retrieved on 4 August 2009.
  7. Oxford English Dictionary, entry for Gay.
  8. Bartleby dictionary.
  9. Martha E. Stone, Sept-Oct, 2002. "Who were Miss Furr and Miss Skeene?", The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.
  10. Bringing Up Baby.
  11. "A queer use of an inoffensive little word; Philip Howard", Jun 07, 1976, p. 12. 
  12. Gay Adjectives vs. Lesbian Nouns. The New Gay (16 September 2008). Retrieved on 4 August 2009.
  13. James Martin (November 4, 2000). The Church and the Homosexual Priest. America The National Catholic Weekly Magazine. Retrieved on 4 August 2009.
  14. "AIDS and Gay Catholic Priests: Implications of the Kansas City Star Report"
  15. Cocks, H. A. "'Sporty' Girls and 'Artistic' Boys: Friendship, Illicit Sex, and the British 'Companionship' Advertisement, 1913-1928", Journal of the History of Sexuality - Volume 11, Number 3, July 2002, pp. 457-482.
  16. The Lyrics Library - Herman's Hermits - No Milk Today
  17. The Beatles revive hopes of progress in pop music with their gay new LP
  18. Global Oneness Encyclopedia: Gay.
  19. Rationale in Support of Pending Resolution:
  20. Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E., Hunter, J., & Braun, L. (2006, February). Sexual identity development among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: Consistency and change over time. Journal of Sex Research, 43(1), 46-58. Retrieved April 4, 2009, from PsycINFO database.
  21. Just a phase. Guardian Unlimited.
  22. GLAAD Media Reference Guide AP, The New York Times & Washington Post Style.
  23. Masculinity for boys: A guide for peer educators; Published by UNESCO, New Delhi, Page: 102, Page: 62
  24. 24.0 24.1 "Gay means rubbish, says BBC", Times newspaper online. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 Denise Winterman. "How 'gay' became children's insult of choice", BBC News. Retrieved on 26 May 2008. 
  26. BBC's attitude to homophobic language 'damages children'. Pink News. Retrieved on 4 March 2009.
  27. Young Liberal Democrats launch 'homophobia is gay' campaign, Pink News, 2006
  28. Robert Sedlaczek, Roberta Baron: leet & leiwand. Das Lexikon der Jugendsprache, Echomedia, 2006, ISBN 3-901761-49-7
  29. US Census, Female Names.

Further reading

External links


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