How ‘Gay’ Came to Mean ‘Homosexual’

Today 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, often prostitutes.  Sort of ironical that today a gay man doesn’t sleep with women. :-)  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 most still do), that “homosexual” is much too clinical sounding and is often thought of as offensive among gay people due to sounding like a disorder.  As such, it was common amongst themselves 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.

Not satisfied with simply changing its definition once a century, as early as the 1980s a new definition for the word gay started popping up among American youth where now something gay could either mean a homosexual or something that is “lame” or “stupid” or the like.  This new definition was originally almost exclusively meant as an insulting term, derogatorily referencing homosexuals.

However, according to a report done by the BBC, most children are still using the word to mean “lame”, but now with having nothing to do with sexuality of any sort and also not generally meant as an insulting term against homosexuals.  Now it is used more to the effect of just saying, for instance, “That movie was gay” as in stupid, but having nothing to do with homosexuality in their minds and not generally directed at people (thus not supposedly meant to be offensive to the gay community).  Whereas the origins of this new “lame” or “stupid” definition were most definitely meant to be insulting and were primarily directed at people.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

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.”

Expand for References:

Share the Knowledge! facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailfacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail
Print Friendly
Enjoy this article? If so, get our FREE wildly popular Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 


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

  • 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!!!” 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *