How ‘Gay’ Came to Mean ‘Homosexual’

gay-loveToday I found out how ‘gay’ came to mean ‘homosexual’.

The word “gay” seems to have its origins around the 12th century in England, derived from the Old French word ‘gai’, which in turn was probably derived from a Germanic word, though that isn’t completely known.  The word’s original meaning meant something to the effect of “joyful”, “carefree”, “full of mirth”, or “bright and showy”.

However, around the early parts of the 17th century, the word began to be associated with immorality.  By the mid 17th century, according to an Oxford dictionary definition at the time, the meaning of the word had changed to mean  “addicted to pleasures and dissipations.  Often euphemistically: Of loose and immoral life”.  This is an extension of one of the original meanings of “carefree”, meaning more or less uninhibited.

Fast-forward to the 19th century and the word gay referred to a woman who was a prostitute and a gay man was someone who slept with a lot of women (ironically enough), often prostitutes. Also at this time, the phrase “gay it” meant to have sex.

With these new definitions, the original meanings of “carefree”, “joyful”, and “bright and showy” were still around; so the word was not exclusively used to refer to prostitutes or a promiscuous man.  Those were just accepted definitions, along with the other meanings of the word.

Around the 1920s and 1930s, however, the word started to have a new meaning.  In terms of the sexual meaning of the word, a “gay man” no longer just meant a man who had sex with a lot of women, but now started to refer to men who had sex with other men.  There was also another word “gey cat” at this time which meant a homosexual boy.

By 1955, the word gay now officially acquired the new added definition of meaning homosexual males.  Gay men themselves seem to have been behind the driving thrust for this new definition as they felt (and many still do), that “homosexual” is much too clinical, sounding like a disorder.  As such, it was common amongst the gay community to refer to one another as “gay” decades before this was a commonly known definition (reportedly homosexual men were calling one another gay as early as the 1920s).  At this time, homosexual women were referred to as lesbians, not gay.  Although women could still be called gay if they were prostitutes as that meaning had not yet 100% disappeared.

Since then, gay, meaning homosexual male, has steadily driven out all the other definitions that have floated about through time and of course also has gradually begun supplementing the word ‘lesbian’ as referring to women who are homosexual.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The abstract noun ‘gaiety’ has somehow largely steered clear of having any sort of sexual connotation as with the word “gay”.  It still keeps its definition as meaning something to the effect of “festive”.
  • Male homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967.  Because even mentioning someone was a homosexual was so offensive at the time in England, people who were thought to be gay were referred to as “sporty” with girls and “artistic” for boys.
  • Bringing Up Baby in 1938 was the first film to use the word gay to mean homosexual.  Cary Grant, in one scene, ended up having to wear a lady’s feathery robe.  When another character asks about why he is wearing that, he responds an ad-libbed line “Because I just went gay”.  At the time, mainstream audiences didn’t get the reference so the line was thought popularly to have meant something to the effect of “I just decided to be carefree.”


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83 comments

  • How did you miss this photo for your montage on the right of the article?!?!?

    http://withleather.uproxx.com/2010/02/best-photo-of-super-bowl-xliv

  • Your article left out some important information. While the use of gay did become used in reference to homosexuality in much the way you say, it was by far NOT the most common term in use, nor the prefered term prior to about 1970.
    In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, The Gay Liberation Front was formed to fight for homosexual rights.

    The name chosen by this important early activist group is the main reason gay became the politically correct term instead of any of the many more common terms in use before then. You can find much more info about this on the website “I Want My Gay Back!!!” http://iwantmygayback.com You will also find a list of much better words for refering to a persons sexual preference that are not based on previous stereotypes.

    Gay is a stereotype, it’s time to start using better words.
    source: http://iwantmygayback.com

  • I can’t believe the gay community, who claimed the word for a PC title had it highjacked (and it is gone, the brits have confirmed it now means lame) by a bunch of 14 yr old suburban Justin Bieber-lookin’, skateboard-ridin’ breeders.

    • It’s true that us teenage Britons use the word ‘gay’ in the form of slang describe something as degenerate, e.g. ‘That film is so gay…’ but we still use it as the euphemism for homosexuals. It’s both a noun and an adjective 🙂 A friend of mine told me he was gay back when I first met him, he literally said “I’m gay.” The people I know who are gay, doesn’t mind being referred to as ‘gay’. I guess some people are just overly PC, which is annoying because they can come across as quite self-righteous sometimes, and I despise self-righteousness with the passion…

  • Why no reference to the use of the word “gay” in songs such as the Flintstones theme, Deck the Halls and a bunch of other songs form the 40’s and 50’s.

  • Great response Pat Smith. Gay, Fag, Butch, LGBT, queen, queer………………I love them all. Just saw a great variety show at the Columbia in New Westminster, a fundraiser for Gay Pride activities in Augus. Google it and join us. Heels and Hills is not to be missed. Is was great to see that Doma is No-mora. A victory, but the work continues.

  • I live in San Francisco n have always wondered how “gay” became a euphemism for homosexuality. I first heard it referred to that way in the wonderful Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant movie from 1938 ‘Bringing Up Baby’, when Grant spins about in a negligee and shouts “I’m Gay! I’m Gay!”

  • I was born in 1951 and, from earliest youth, have always been deeply interested in English-language usage (and also majored and minored in foreign languages). Sir, your article contains some errors, probably because you relied, not on personal experience, but on untrustworthy sources. Pat Smith is absolutely correct in pointing out that “gay” did not become widely used to mean “homosexual” until the 1970s. I can testify to the fact that the people of the 1950s and 1960s, in the rare cases that they would mention homosexuality, would use the terms, “fag” and “queer,” never “gay.” [Ironically, some homosexual activists now call themselves “queer,” and one has taken on the alias, “Luke Sissyfag.”] Sir, you were wrong to write that “By 1955, the word gay now officially acquired the new added definition.” Not only was your date far off, but there is no such thing as “official” acquisition of definitions in English, because there is no “official” arbiter. Moreover, the word, “gay” is not fully equivalent to the word, “homosexual.” Rather, “gay” is used to mean, “one who insists on the moral acceptance of homosexual acts.” The truth is that the many people with same-sex attraction who believe that chastity is required of them REFUSE to call themselves “gay.”

    • Daven Hiskey

      @AnUnSi: References?

      • References are Merriam-Webster, the OED, and lexicographers the world over. There is no such thing as an official definition in English because there is no governing style. The only way something can be official in language is if there is a governing party that regulates it, and that is not the function of a dictionary or style guide. I have a four-year university degree in English and study lexicography, particularly descriptive linguistics. There is zero evidence whatsoever to support the idea that there is such a thing as an official definition of a word, only the most popular way people have been observed to use a word in the past. Dictionary entries for words themselves are listed in that order because lexicographers who research past word usage keep tabs on how frequently particular words are used and how they are used (by observation, not by rules) and the first definition is the most popular way to use it, the second the second-most, and so on, down to a threshold the publisher arbitrarily on their own decides is low enough to stop listing. There can be styles that have rules, such as the medical or legal fields or companies like the Associated Press which has a style that it requires all of its writers to obey, but those styles do not govern English itself because English has no rules. All grammar and dictionary “rules” are actually just observations, in a similar way that Twitter hashtags list only ways people have previously used a hashtag, not limitations on the only way you’re allowed to use one.

        • Patrick Bateman

          That was the most unnecessary, fluffed-out explanation I have ever read.

          Language is subjective. There you have it. That explains it.

    • The issue of dating “GAY” can only be solved by findiing legit examples of its usage in old books, movies and TV footage. Personally, from all I’ve ever read and watched, I’ve never come across any instances of the word “gay” in anything written or filmed between the 1930s and 1980s. Back in 1920s, the word meant “fun” and in the 1980s it came to mean “homo buttfuckus” (a new species of humans), but in the decades between it was not used AT ALL.

      “Fags” and “queers” are, of course, easy to verify as being in common usage as early as 1940s. Trying finding “gay” there.

    • There was sex way back then?

  • I failed to mention one final matter. I am glad to read about kids beginning to use the word, “gay,” with a meaning that is not related to sexuality. I hope that this will cause society to stop using the term to refer to homosexual activists. The reason I say this is not prejudice, but rather my respect for the widespread use of the word in literature — and especially in classic song lyrics of the 19th and 20th Centuries — with its original meaning (joyful, carefree). We who are attracted to the opposite sex should be able to read/write about, speak of, and sing about, ourselves as “gay” without misleading people.

    • Marcos (from Brazil)

      A new expression is establishing, not only in English, but in other languages as well…
      “I’m am not (throw your preferred prejudice), but…”, almost every time means that the person holds that prejudice, but tries to pass as a polite one.
      “Gay” has spread, mostly through cultural colonization, meaning homosexual men, and some idiom purists here even tried to adapt to “guei” (the transliteration in Portuguese), but, of course, didn’t catch.

  • … “sporty” with girls and “artistic” for boys….
    I wonder if this was a consideration when a certain Melanie Chisholm adopted the handle ‘Sporty Spice’.

  • Claudio Bergamasco

    To AnUnSi- Your comment that to the extent persons referred to homosexuality in the 50s and 60s they did not use the term “gay” is dead wrong. The first time I heard the word “gay” as referring to homosexuality was in 1966 from a fellow freshman student in high school. He lived in the lower east side of Manhattan and was straight. Clearly in urban areas with significant homosexual populations the term gay was in common use by the 60s. As far as your resentment regarding the pervasive use of the term gay to describe homosexuals today, get over it. Gay rights and the ability of folks to be what they are rather than living a lie are among the few beacons of light in an otherwise reactionary anti-democratic stage in this nation’s checkered history.

    • I believe you’re both speaking from personal experience, and it could be that whichever regions you repsectively dwelt in at the time became more popular to use the term than the other and was merely unable to directly observe the usage. Etymonline suggests the earliest known reference of “gay” to mean homosexual comes from a 1947 reference text, and speculates that the term came about as an earlier reference to a ‘young hobo’ from 1893-1910. It also notes that the Dictionary of American Slang states gay was used as a term in 1920 between homosexuals to describe each other.

      As a side note, words don’t “mean” something in terms of being like a rule — they only mean what the speaker intends them to mean, and nothing else. If someone says they meant “two-story apartment” or “banana-flavored toothpaste” or whatever else when they personally use the word gay, that IS what it means when they use it. The meaning of words is defined by the speaker of the word, and the dictionary only lists the most popular ways the largest number of people have used it. A dictionary is not a rule system that people must obey for fear of using a word “wrong” because using a word wrong is impossible, for there is no governing party except within a specific style by which corrections may only be credibly made between users of that specific style.

      • It is funny. While I agree with everything you say, I cannot agree completely. It does not compute that “it depends on what the meaning of is is.” While there are no official rules of English, we do have generally accepted meanings for words. Without that, we would not be able to communicate.

    • Give us a break, Claudio! You don’t want people to “get over it.” You want people to embrace it.

      Of course, for that to happen will require the true “beacons of light” to be hidden under a bushel. Ironic, isn’t it?!

  • Pat Smith, you used the term sexual preference, but it is not considered acceptable usage anymore because it implies choice. The proper term is sexual orientation.

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned that Cary Grant’s ad lib of “gay” to mean homosexual may have been due to his own special knowledge, since it was likely he was gay (though he was notoriously private and no one who knew him has verified it with certainty). It is a delicious irony since it was not known to the general public. Or was that too obvious to everyone here?

  • Cary Grant was not gay. When he did a picture with Sophia Loren he fell madly in love with her.
    At the time she was with the man she later married—Ponte?
    No big deal if Grant was gay, but I don’t think he was.

    I knew this years and years before Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS and was gay. Believe this–Gomer Pile (Jim Neighbors) was his lover. Jim was, to be delicate, well put together–extremely large. I’m suprised Jim is still alive and living in Hawaii. Hudson must have gotten AIDS after neighbors.

  • The push for the word marriage is nothing more than a scam to try to grab some dollars. The ridiculous dollars being given by the liberal judges is assine. What about the christian who went to a gay bakery and asked for a bible formed cake with some scriptures, none of which referred to homosexually and the bible and they refused to bake it. When he went to the law to complain it was told he didn’t have a complaint. The law is the same for all or it doesn’t exist in the USA. What is this crap??

    • Please knock it off. I’m a liberal, and I agree that the cake should have been baked. I’m not a lawyer, let alone a judge, but if you’re in business, you’re in business for everyone.
      Were you just trolling for responses, or were you backlashing at people who don’t accept Evangelical Christianity as the only true belief? What’s your real motive?

      • Of course, as a liberal, you think the cake should have been baked. Liberals, for the most part, think that religious convictions should only be held in church and not in your day to day life. Why have none of these same sex couples gone to Muslim bakeries to get their wedding cakes done? Muslim bakeries would not do them either, but they are a favorite of the libs these days, so you cannot do anything to offend them.

    • Grant was not gay, he was a gentleman and a good looking one …

      • Have you never heard of Neil Patrick Harris? A very good-looking gay gentlemen.

        Gay men can be just as attractive as straight men, gay men are just as gentlemanly (if not more, in certain cases) as straight men. Cary Grant being a good-looking gentleman in no way informs anyone of his sexual orientation.

        And for those of you arguing over whether he was gay or straight – bisexual is ALSO an option, one that people still tend to overlook these days. It’s not impossible that Cary Grant could have been a man who appreciates BOTH men and women. Not that it matters, the man’s been dead for 30 years. We can’t ask him so there’s no use in speculating.

  • I was reading a book written in the 19th century. In it was a description of a brief encounter between two men. An unfriendly character approached a cheerful fellow where they had a short, tense conversation. The former ended by shouting at the other and leaving The author wrote, “After a brief but intense intercourse, he ejaculated in the face of the gay man.” Doesn’t mean even close to the same thing anymore.

  • This article states that as early as the 1980s American youth started using the word gay to mean lame or stupid but we were saying that in school in the 1970s. “That movie’s so gay” “You’re so gay”. I don’t know when they started using the word gay to mean lame and stupid but it was before the 1980s.

  • Hope Winter Hall

    So have missed out the words first transformation. In the folk song Broomfield Hill the opening lines are; “It’s of a Lord in the North Country, He courted a lady gay”. It goes on to tell a story of a powerful woman. Queen Elizabeth 1st was considered to be such a Lady Gay. The kind of woman who would hunt and wear items of men’s clothing to do so. This included feathers in their hats. Previously only men hunted and only men wore feathers in their hats or caps.

    So the association with strong women was born. By the mid 1700s you needed to be a strong woman to be a whore. The slip back into something pretty was a result in women becoming more subjugated during the industrial revolution. Victorian whores were more likely to be ‘run’ by men.

  • You are way too ignorant be an authority on the English language. Gay never meant anything sexual before the 70s. It was just a fun word meaning bright and colorful, happy and joyous. Anything along those lines, not a penis or anus in sight. Anybody older then 60 will tell you how regrettable it was that homosexuals appropriated the word to describe what they’re doing to each other in bathroom stalls.

  • I just wish everyone was as passionate about civil rights of all kinds as they are about who calls who what. It is true that there is no authority on the English (British and all other varieties: American, Australian, &c.) language; would anyone care to adopt the French system? If the Academie Francaise doesn’t approve it, You Can’t Use It!! And they have control over names to be given to newborns, too. So just enjoy your freedom to express yourselves everyone, and quit niggling! Personally I love everyone, I don’t care about sexual orientation or any other diversity. At least the French got that right: Vive la difference!

  • So
    Basically
    What I’m reading here is
    The gay community more or less said call us gay….yet now a lot of us are offended by the mere word gay

    • It is and or should be the business owners perogative whether they want to make a “Bible Cake” or “Political Campaign Cake” “Zombie or Fantasy Cake” a “Penis or a even a Homo-Sexual Cake”! No one should be forced to create (with their gift to the world) anything that is offensive to them.
      However…If I were lead baker to the King; and perhaps if I wanted to keep my head, I would bake absolutely anything he preferred…But We live in The United States America!…right people?!

    • Not offended by the word GAY just the misuse of a word!

  • Matt L is exactly correct. There is no need for long, roundabout etymology for the word “gay”. Prior to its takeover by activist word–pirates, indeed the word meant ‘happy, cheery’ z.B. ‘the gay colours of fall’; ‘the meadow, dotted gaily w/ wildflowers, usw.’ Gay=homosexual did not enter my ken until after 1980 or so.

    • Exactly. I also never heard it used to mean “homosexual” until about 1980. It always meant “happy” or “fun-loving.” In fact, it was a sort of old-fashioned word–none of my peers (and I grew up in a major metropolitan area on the East Coast) used it at all, and nor did my parents. I only heard it in the Flintstones song, the term “Gay Nineties,” poems (to rhyme with something else), and old songs from decades past. Maybe “gay” meant homosexual within the gay community or Hollywood in the period before 1980, but not in the mainstream culture.

      • Exactly Chris – When I was growing up, and until the 1980’s era, I was always taught by my parents, and was as usually known in the rest of the normal society that Gay meant Happy, Joyful, and Care-free (people who didn’t have a care in the world, and enjoyed life in general). Just as until the 1980’s, in normal society the term “Fairy”, or “Fairies”, meant and referred to a small mythical creature (usually a female with wings carrying a magic wand always doing good for others) in books and stories called “Fairy Tales”, and were written for children. Then all of a sudden, and unfortunately The Homosexuals (mainly in the San Francisco, area) decided to adopt those terms, (among others) and turn them into Dirty, Derogatory words for their own sick, mentally deranged benefit. Did they (the Homosexuals) even think of all the Children that had already grew up, was growing up at that time, or would grow up in the future with the words Fairy, or Fairies, meaning a nice wonderful mythical creature with wings and a magic wand in children’s Fairy Tales or even the word Gay, no longer meaning a person who is happy, joyful or carefree, now becoming and being used as dirty words of derogatory meaning pertaining to sick, mentally deranged, sexual perversion. I can guarantee you that, NO, THEY DIDN”T.. All they could think of, was taking and using those normal ordinary words, for their own special sick perversion, by trying to make themselves all look and sound cool, and the HELL with all the Innocent Children.

        • The ‘Innocent Children’ should by all rights be more disgusted and horrified with all the stupid and unjustifiable hate in the world than what people choose to do in their private lives. I know I certainly was.

          • The fact you highlighted the phrase ‘Innocent Children’ – then attempted to undermine the very idea that such creatures might still exist – tells us all we need to know about your perspective on life.

        • Wow. Why so angry with people who aren’t hurting you?

      • Growing up, never heard the name gay for homosexuals, Gay was a name for girls, it meant happy etc. People who liked the same sex, were called queers, powder puff, pansies so I suppose the homosexuals wanted a nicer name for themselves a sort of defiant act!. but I see nothing wrong with homosexual , lesbian, heterosexual, bi-sexual. That is what people are! Gay is really a euphemism for who they are, and to have to steal word to describe themselves is pathetic. Stand up, say who you are! Not that any one cares what a person does in their private moments, as long as both adults are consenting.

      • You had a very sheltered childhood then. In England gay was commonly understood to mean homosexual in the 1970s,
        probably to a lesser extent in the 1960s as well.

        Gay meaning homosexual has existed for a long time
        though: the 1943 Cole Porter song FARMING (Let’s Face It) uses gay to
        mean both glamorous/fashionable and homosexual. I suppose at that time the
        homosexual meaning of gay was intentionally slightly cryptic and would
        not have been widely recognised by the general public.

    • Some people may think the modern use of the word gay emerged in the 1980s because that’s when they heard it. I was definitely aware of it prior to 1980. I’m not old enough to have been a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, but I do have friends who were. THE GLF started in the late 1960s, therefore, Gay was already the prefered term for all at that time. AND, BTW, at that time it referred to gay men, lesbians, trans people and intersex people.Here in UK anyway

      • Gay meaning homosexual has existed for a long time: the 1943 Cole Porter song FARMING (Let’s Face It) uses gay to mean both glamorous/fashionable and homosexual. I suppose at that time the homosexual meaning of gay was intentionally cryptic and would not have been widely recognised by the general public.

  • Great article, but the modern word gay does not simply describe a sexual orientation. It also denotes romantic orientation. While the word homosexual reduces our love for other men to bedroom activities (or public bathroom activities, as one undoubtedly conservative individual insinuated in a comment above), the word gay describes with whom we fall in love, with whom we want to build a live and maybe start a family one day.

    It is for this reason that many conservatives flat out refuse to use the term gay, make a point of calling us homosexuals and often falsely equate gay with anal sex. Unlike love and romance, anal sex has a certain squick factor. Any kind of sex practice is easily made out to be dirty and disgusting, and that’s exactly how people like Matt L want to see us. I’ve come to loathe the word homosexual for this reason and much prefer the term gay. I just wish there were equally romantic orientation-inclusive terms for bisexual and pansexual individuals, who shouldn’t be reduced to their sexual orientation either.

  • There is absolutely nothing “gay” about these sexual deviants. These are a sick, depraved people.

  • During a.m. hours (June 12, 2016) at least 50 were killed in a club which caters to homosexuals. I disagree with that sort of ‘lifestyle’, but I could never kill. I was born when ‘gay’ meant ‘happy’, i.e. listen to lyrics of ‘Blue Skirt Waltz’.

    Whatever happened to heeding the Bible’s 10 Commandments, i.e. THOU SHALT NOT KILL? Surely, clear-thinking Muslims have their commandments too ?

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  • I love how many people are commenting here that “because I didn’t hear it until … , that usage couldn’t have existed earlier”. I didn’t learn to use the metric system until I was a teenager. Doesn’t mean the French weren’t using it a couple of hundred years earlier, does it?

    Ignorance is one thing. Stupidity is another entirely.

    • Gay was certainly commonly understood to mean homosexual in the 1970s , probably in the 1960s as well. That meaning had existed for a long time though, the Cole Porter song FARMING (Let’s Face It, 1943) uses gay to mean both glamorous and homosexual. I suppose at that time the homosexual meaning of gay was intentionally slightly cryptic and would not have been widely recognised.

  • I have been living in South America for 5 years now (Colombia)

    Since the language that I am learning that is spoken here is
    the Romantic Language Spanish, let me share some linguistic
    and cultural similarities of the usage of the term “gay”.

    In the the Romantic Languages there is often a sweet way
    to refer to people using terms of endearment. The diminutive
    suffixes of Ito(masculine) or ita(feminine) is an example.
    A boy named Raphael is often referred to as Raphaelito.
    A girl named Consuelo would be Consuelita.
    Similarly the term for fat or chubby “Gordo” would be gordito masc.
    gordita feminine.

    The sweet term most used for Male homosexuals is
    “mariposa” which means butterfly. The rough term is “mericon”
    which translates to “faggot.”

    I think the preferred term by homosexuals of
    “gay” is an effort by their community to sweeten
    or romanticize that experience as more joyful and
    human and less demeaning.

    That said, I think that being gay was not a choice, but
    the way God made them. Scientifically it has to do
    with the composition of their brains or DNA.

    I can accept the sweetness and creativity of their lifestyle.
    I do struggle to accept the promiscuity of having multiple
    partners, most of them strangers to cavalierly perform
    random sexual activity, at least among men.

    This is something that is a choice, and a RADICAL change
    in this cultural dynamic will go a long way toward acceptance
    of them by Straighta.

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