This adjective, meaning joyful or light-hearted, is of uncertain origin. The English word comes from the French gai, but where this French word comes from is uncertain. There are cognates in other Romance languages, notably Provencal, Old Spanish, Portugeuse, and Italian, but no likely Latin candidate for a root exists. The word is probably Germanic in origin, with the Old High German gāhi, fast or fleeting, suggested as a likely progenitor.1
The word is first recorded in English c.1325, with the meaning of beautiful, in a poem titled Blow, Northerne Wind, which appears in the manuscript British Library MS Harley 2253 (As an aside, Harley 2253 is a very important manuscript. It is a treasure-trove of early English lyric poetry, containing early and unique copies of many poems.):
Heo is dereworþe in day,
graciouse, stout, ant gay,
gentil, iolyf so þe iay.
(She is precious in day
gracious, stout, and gay,
gentle, jolly as the jay.)2
Over the next few decades, the meaning of the word evolved from beautiful to bright, showy, and finely dressed. By the end of the 14th century, the modern sense of light-hearted and carefree had appeared. From Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde, Book II, lines 921-22, written c.1385:
Peraunter in his briddes wise a lay
Of love, that made hire herte fressh and gay.
(By chance, in his bird’s manner [sang] a song
Of love, that made her heart fresh and gay.)3
In recent years, however, this traditional sense of gay has been driven out of the language by the newer sense meaning homosexual. Many believe this new sense of gay to be quite recent, when in fact it dates at least to the 1920s and perhaps even earlier. This early existence is as a slang and self-identifying code word among homosexuals, only entering the mainstream of English in the late 1960s. So how did this word meaning joyful come to refer to homosexuality?
There are two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, commonly proffered explanations that are plausible.
Perhaps the most commonly touted one is that the modern use of gay comes from a clipping of gaycat, a slang term among hobos and itinerants meaning a boy or young man who accompanies an older, more experienced tramp, with the implication of sexual favors being exchanged for protection and instruction. The term was often used disparagingly and dates to at least 1893, when it appears in the November issue of 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.
The disparaging sense can be seen in this citation from the 10 August 1895 issue of Harper’s Weekly:
The hobo is an exceedingly proud fellow, and if you want to offend him, call him a “gay cat” or a “poke-outer.”
And from Jack London’s The Road, published in 1907, but this passage is a reference to 1892:
In a more familiar parlance, gay-cats are short-horns, chechaquos, new chums, or tenderfeet. A gay-cat is a newcomer on The Road who is man-grown, or, at least, youth-grown.4
The second possible explanation is that the homosexual sense is an outgrowth of an earlier sense of gay meaning addicted to pleasure, self-indulgent, or immoral. This sense dates to at least 1597 when it appears in John Payne’s Royall Exchange:
Sum gay professors (kepinge secret minions) do love there wyues […] to avoyde shame.
By the early 20th century, the phrase “to go gay” was in use, meaning to adopt a hedonistic lifestyle. From Edward Montague Compton MacKenzie’s 1912 Carnival:
They stayed another night [at the public house] [...] Jenny [...] had a flaming quarrel with her mother, who accused her of “going gay.”
Also, by the late 18th century, this sense had developed into a euphemism for prostitution. From Richard King’s New Cheats of London Exposed, written c.1795:
Those bullies who live upon whores of fashion, affect the dress and airs of men of rank and fortune, and by strutting occasionally by the side of a gay lady, add a consequence to her and themselves, and induce the ignorant cully to think that miss confers her favours on gentlemen alone.
And from Mary Robinson’s 1799 The False Friend:
“That’s not my business,” replied the bailiff. “She keeps a gay house at the west end of town. I dare say Miss can inform you for what purpose.”5
This sense could easily have transferred to male prostitutes and then generalized to mean homosexual writ large. But there is no clear use of the word in the context of homosexuality until the 20th century.
One potential early usage of the modern sense of gay, meaning homosexual, is from an 1868 song by female impersonator Will S. Hays titled, Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store. The lyrics do not explicitly link the word with homosexuality, but they can be interpreted that way, especially if sung by a man in drag:
It’s about a chap, perhaps you know,
I’m told he is ‘Nobody’s beau,’
But maybe you all knew that before,
He’s a lively clerk in a Dry-Goods Store.
O! Augustus Dolphus is his name,
From Skiddy-ma-dink they say he came,
He’s a handsome man and he’s proud and poor,
This gay young clerk in the Dry-Goods Store.6
It’s easy to dismiss the homosexual implications in the song as a 21st century reinterpretation of a mid-19th century song, but the idea of the effeminate store clerk was a popular subject of parody in the 1860s. In fact, one 1860 parody of Whitman’s Song of Myself starts:
I am the Counter-jumper, weak and effeminate.
I love to loaf and lie about dry-goods.7
While we cannot say with certainty that Hays’s use of gay was intended to imply homosexuality, the parodic icon of the effeminate store clerk and the link to Whitman’s homosexuality is tantalizing.
Another early appearance that is of questionable meaning is from Gertrude Stein’s 1922 Miss Furr & Mrs. Skeene which appeared in Vanity Fair. It is uncertain, however, if Stein’s use of gay in this case is a reference to lesbianism or to the conventional sense of gay meaning happy:
They were...gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay,...they were quite regularly gay.8
The first unequivocal written use of gay to mean homosexual is in 1929, in Noel Coward’s musical Bitter Sweet. In the song Green Carnation, four overdressed, 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.
The penultimate line refers to the 1890s, which were commonly called the gay nineties. In general usage, this appellation had nothing to do with homosexuality, but in this context, Coward clearly uses it as a double entendre. And The Green Carnation was an 1894 novel by Robert Hichens, published anonymously, whose main characters were loosely based on Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas and which led to Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency.” There is no doubt that this 1929 usage of gay is a reference to homosexuality.
It appears again in Charles Ford and Parker Tyler’s 1933 The Young and Evil:
Gayest thing on two feet.
An in the 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby, the character played by Cary Grant, when asked why he is wearing women’s clothing replies:
Because I just went gay all of a sudden.9
Note that going gay had an established sense of becoming hedonistic. This line is probably a double entendre intended to slip past the censors.
The term remained slang within the homosexual community until the late 1960s, when the Stonewall riots and the rise of homosexual rights activism brought this sense of gay to wider society.
It’s probably worth mentioning that there is a false acronymic origin for gay floating about, that it stands for Good As You. Like most acronymic origins for words, this is just incorrect.
2N.R. Ker, Facsimile of British Museum MS. Harley 2253, Early English Text Society, vol. 255 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), f.72v.
3Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 502.
4Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 872.
5OED3, gay, adj., adv., and n.
6Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Johns Hopkins University, accessed 2 Feb 2009 <https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/20167>.
7Walt Whitman, Song of Myself: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition, edited by Ezra Greenspan, Routledge Guides to Literature (New York: Routledge, 2005), 28.
8HDAS, v. 1, 871.
9HDAS, v. 1, 871.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton