This is so gay!

By Maeve Maddox

I recently received a comment on one of my posts that said, “This is gay.” As the comment made no sense in the context, I was puzzled.

For those fogies like me who hadn’t realized that the word gay has morphed again, here’s a timeline of its changing meanings as illustrated in the OED.

gay: adj.
c1325 Noble; beautiful; excellent, fine.
Example: Heo is… graciouse, stout, ant gay, gentil, iolyf so þe iay
Translation: She is precious by day, gracious, splendid and excellent, gentle, jolly as a bird. (“stout,” meant “stately, magnificent, splendid”; “iay” refers to the European jay)

c1380 Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.
Example: Oppon þe tour..þar stondeþ a iuwel gay, An egle of gold þat schynaþ brigt so doþ þe sonne on may.
Translation: Upon the tower…there stands a brilliant jewel, An eagle of gold that shines as does the sun in May.

c1385 Of persons, their attributes, actions, etc.: light-hearted, carefree; manifesting, characterized by, or disposed to joy and mirth; exuberantly cheerful, merry; sportive.
Example: A lay Of love..made hire herte fressh and gay.
Translation: A story about love…made her heart fresh and merry.

1597 Originally of persons and later also more widely: dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic. Also (esp. in to go gay): uninhibited; wild, crazy; flamboyant.
Example: Sum gay professors (kepinge secret minions) do love there wyues..to avoyde shame
Translation: Some homosexual professors (keeping secret catamites) do love their wives…to avoid shame.


1922-2003 orig. U.S. slang. (a) Of a person: homosexual; (b) (of a place, milieu, way of life, etc.) of or relating to homosexuals.

Examples: 1941 Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality…2003 Episcopalians took a big step toward electing their first openly gay bishop.

1978 slang (chiefly U.S.) (sometimes considered offensive). Foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of; ‘lame’.
Examples: 1978 ‘It looks terrific on you.’ ‘It looks gay.’ 1987 Your so-stupid-they’re-funny captions are gay. Get into some [real] humor.

These six definitions with their examples only scratch the surface of all the meanings that have been attached to the word gay since it entered the language from Anglo-Norman gai/gaye, and provide an excellent case study of the arbitrariness of language.

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47 Responses to “This is so gay!”

  • asd

    the author of this article is an excellent example of gayness, people have been using ‘gay’ to express ‘lame’ for at least a decade

  • Ivan Walsh

    That’s what you get for writing with a pink keyboard 🙂

  • mattack

    Just to be clear, using “gay” to belittle or demean something (or someone), is downright offensive.

  • Candace Davenport

    Having two teenaged children, now in their 20’s and having a husband who teaches high school, I can tell you that referring to something or someone as being gay in the method you stated in your post, is as derogatory as you can get.

    We had to work with our kids to make them understand the offensiveness of that statement and every year, my husband still works with his kids in school to make them realize this as well.

  • Philip Dragonetti

    I’m not sure the transitory nature of this word describes the arbitrariness of “language”. Rather, it seems to me to describe the arbitrariness of slang.

    The slang word in question, it seems, was coined by ithe practitioners of the activity in order to camouflage and give a better spin to the standard word, a part of language, that the practitioners did not like.

    This is true today with other words, like “immigration”. Illegal aliens are now called part of the “immigration” problem.

    “Immigration”??? This word deliberately intended to camouflage the truth. Since when are people, illegally jumping the US border, considered “immigrants”??? Why is the media so determined to not use the truthful word???

  • Maeve

    @asd
    According to the OED, it has been around for three decades.

    The first time the author of this article heard “gay” used in the sense of “homosexual” was while watching an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show (1970-1977).

    I guess that’s what comes of spending too much time around people who speak standard English.

  • kaley

    I was shocked and dismayed to read your post, Ms. Maddox. You seem to be saying that “this is gay” is an acceptable expression, but is not. Whether I am gay or straight is irrelevant – the expression is offensive.

  • Laura

    The term “gay” to describe something that is lame, out of style, or just odd is widely considered to be offensive in the US as “gay” is used to describe homosexuals and the implication is that, by extension, the speaker is describing homosexuals as lame, out of style, or just odd.

  • Cygnifier

    The first time that I’m aware of “gay” being used in film as a term with homosexual overtones is the 1938 “Bringing Up Baby.” The speaker of the line is Cary Grant who at that moment is greatly frustrated because his clothes have disappeared and he is left only with one of Katharine Hepburn’s feathery, satiny bathrobes — when asked why he is dressed like that he replies “because I just went gay all of a sudden.” With the latest iteration of “gay,” “lame” doesn’t quite capture the distasteful nuances of the term. The term is loaded, carrying with it negative judgments of gays/homosexuals. It developed as a slam against gays. Sensitive individuals will choose less negatively loaded terms. The withdrawal of the trailer for Ron Howard’s upcoming film “The Dilemma” because of the use of this term offers an instructive case in point.

  • Lisa Gibson

    asd – That doesn’t make it right or acceptable.
    Using the term ‘gay’ in a negative manner it not acceptable. It’s no better than calling thing ‘retarded’, which yes I realize people do. Why can’t words like ‘ridiculous’ or ‘lame’ be used instead of taking aim at a group of people.

  • Daquan Wright

    Sorry dude….you’re waaaaaaaaaaaay late. lol

    Gay is a very mainstream word for lame/”teh suckorz.” So the word’s just grown more meaning in conversations, though that context is not used to offend people.

  • serenity

    There is no ‘sometimes offensive’, using the term in this way is always offensive.

  • Paige

    This has become a rather controversial usage of the word, as it basically employs homosexuality to convey something negative.

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/the_big_picture/2010/11/glaad-responds-to-ron-howards-gay-joke-defense-when-is-a-word-more-than-a-word-.html

  • Andy Harley

    The first know usage of the word “gay” in today’s usage was in 1922 by Gertrude Stein in her book “Miss Furr & Miss Skeene”. Ms. Stein used the word. Seven years later, in 1929, Noel Coward used the word in a song in his musical “Bitter Sweet”. The lyric for “Green Carnation” includes:

    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.

    A Coward-esque ‘double entendre’: referring to the “gay (carefree) Ninties” and green carnation, which noted homosexual Oscar Wilde was well know for wearing.

  • bad tim

    did you stop to consider that ‘gay’ meaning ‘lame’ is part of the reagan-era backlash against the gay rights movement, and that it is extremely offensive to gays and lesbians when used that way?

    it’s only popular now because of south park; not an example i’d uphold for strong moral values, no matter how funny it is.

    regardless of whether or not the user intends to offend, it’s a cruel way to treat people who are only just coming into their own identity as a community.

  • Don

    Conan, who’s trying to regain a career tonight, frequently referred to things/actions as being gay or so gay. (I wondered about that.) And then there’s that book by Cornelia Otis Skinner, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.”

  • Jason

    Since the 6th obviously morphed into a general pejorative from the 5th, I’m glad a few people noticed it’s obscene. Using “gay” as a way to say something is lame or stupid essentially amounts to an insidious association between homosexuality and “I don’t really have a reason but I dislike that.”

  • Daquan Wright

    I disagree. I see people who openly accept gays use the term plenty.

    Example being a video on youtube (machinemarespawn gaming video) had three guys talking about Call of Duty, one of them who always stands up for gays. As the video is closing, a guy is called a fag for liking a particular assault rifle. It’s all in good fun.

    If you feel that uptight about the term, then that’s your problem.

  • mattack

    No Daquan, people who use the word gay as a pejorative are being thoughtless and disrespectful, even if “it’s all in good fun.”

    Likewise for the word “lame.” It’s disrespectful.

  • Don

    Einstien: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Labeling “lame” as a disrespectful term is pc gone wild. (Such a discussion board this has become!)

  • Don

    Oops: Einstein

  • Daquan Wright

    You’re too sensitive and you’re drawing too much from a simple term. Just because it can be used offensively doesn’t mean it always is, context is a more valid measure.

  • Cecily

    I don’t like the South Park style use of “gay” to mean “lame” and I understand why many people, especially those who are gay, find it downright nasty.

    What puzzles me is how many teens and twenties separate it from its homosexual implications and are not homophobic in any other way. They’ll describe all sorts of things and each other as “gay”; the only time they won’t use it in a derogatory way is to describe those who actually are gay.

    Nevertheless, not all people use it with innocuous intentions and because it can so easily be construed as offensive, I think it is best to avoid it.

  • mattack

    @Daquan Fair, context can be valid. But using “gay” and “lame” to describe something negatively is *still* not okay. It implies being homosexual, or not being able to walk, is a bad thing. It’s not.

    @Don “Politically Correct” is used as an insult by people who don’t want to acknowledge their privilege or how their being disrespectful. I’m not trying to take anything away from you (or anyone else) by being PC. I’m just trying to treat *all* people with dignity and respect. I think others should do the same.

  • Don

    This from the New York Times is relevant: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/speech-and-harm/?nl=opinion&emc=tya1

  • Debbie Haughland Chan

    Mattack, you say “It implies being homosexual, or not being able to walk, is a bad thing. It’s not.” I think most people unable to walk would say it’s a bad thing to not be able to walk.

  • Kate D

    I completly agree with the above commenters who believe that using gay as a pejorative is misguided or offensive. Substitute ‘gay’ with ‘black’ or ‘female’ or ‘asian’ and it is clear that the sentence ‘that’s so gay’ is not on.

    Maybe people who use it aren’t conciously aware of the associations they are making but, as I am sure many readers of this blog know, language is a powerful thing and its influence far-reaching.

  • Peter

    Using the term ‘gay’ in a negative manner it not acceptable.

    To whom?

    It’s no better than calling thing ‘retarded’, which yes I realize people do. Why can’t words like ‘ridiculous’ or ‘lame’ be used instead of taking aim at a group of people.

    Why isn’t “lame” equally verboten? 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    OK, a few days late and I still am unsure where to begin, so let me just say that when my now-18-year-old daughter started coming home using that expression, I was livid. I’m not homosexual/gay, but I support everyone’s right to choose a sex partner. I was on her every time she used the expression. What made it worse is that she didn’t see anything wrong with it, and in fact has at least one close homosexual/gay/lesbian (whatever the preferred word is) friend. So I understood that she didn’t INTEND the expression to be offensive, but it is offensive nonetheless, as I am relieved to see most of the posters here agree.
    @peter: I’m not sure I see a parallel with the word “lame,” because lameness applies to excuses as well as people (or animals) who can’t walk well, and doesn’t appear to segregate, target or shun people. I more clearly see the parallel with the word “retarded,” which was the expression I grew up using. Most likely secondary to times a-changin’, I don’t use that word anymore unless I am talking about someone who, or some process that, is in fact retarded, in the medical sense. I use words like ridiculous, unacceptable, etc. The English language has enough words from which to choose, and we don’t need to belittle people, even “unintentionally.” I have friends who are surely gay, but by no means lame in any sense of the word. To me, using “gay” to equal “lame” is, quite frankly, ridiculous and unacceptable.

  • Peter

    And “gay” meant “happy” long before it meant “homosexual”. When I was a kid, children’s books used to talk about “gay” people and objects. Why should it be restricted solely to meaning “homosexual” now and forevermore? “Lame” applying to excuses is clearly an extension of the meaning “crippled”, therefore should be much more offensive, if you’re inclined to be offended by that sort of thing (in which case, maybe there’s a pill that would help!?), than the disputed meaning of “gay”.

  • Cygnifier

    Daquan — Using negative terms within an in-group (such as the N-word) may be acceptable when using the same term outside of that group is highly offensive. It’s similar to how a term can also be used to a close friend in jest that could most definitely not be used appropriately in other contexts (such as bitch or bastard).

    Don — “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” (a travelogue published in 1942 by two young women on their first trip abroad) uses the term in the “happy” sense, not in the derogatory sense under discussion. The subtitle, “A Comic Chroicle of Innocents Abroad in the 1920s”, underscores that choice.

    Peter — Are we talking about the “happy” meaning of gay being offensive? I thought not, although sadly I suspect that the use of “gay” to refer to homosexuality has forever changed the nuances of the word in any context, which is a shame–even the light sound of the word is suited to its use to refer to lightness and joy in its “happy” use. It also introduces an issue of clarity — do the newer meanings alter the ability of texts using the older meanings to convey what they intended to convey? Hmmm.

  • mattack

    Really, Debbie. I’ll grant you not being able to walk is a tragic thing. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, nor does it mean they should be insulted or disrespected for not being able to walk…

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  • Terry Dassow

    While student teaching I overheard this comment more times than I can count. Word meaning shift is something permanent. Until the next shift in this phrase is attempted on a large medium that attracts teens worldwide,(TV being the most effective) we are stuck with this phrase.

    Addressing it directly is the only way to make people realize just what they are in the habit of saying may not match up with what they mean.

  • Cecily

    Terry: Re “Word meaning shift is something permanent. Until the next shift… ” That’s an interesting definition of permanent. 😉

  • thebluebird11

    @ Cecily: Very funny! But no worse than a “perm[anent]” for your hair, right?

  • Natural manhood

    why do gays deliberately avoid acknowledging that ‘gay’ also means feminine, unmanly, unmasculine.

  • RheaT72

    you gotta take the power back people. If you’re going to take something as a constant insult then it will be just that. Some African Americans have taken the power out of the ‘N’ word and used it as a term of endearment. Language is ever changing. You give words meaning by how you say them. It may have been derogatory to homosexuals by someone who said it but that doesnt mean it does to all people who do.

  • thebluebird11

    @ natural manhood: Because it doesn’t.
    @ rhea: gay people don’t mind being called gay. The issue here is equating “gay” with lame, stupid, idiotic, dorky, feminine, unmanly, etc etc. While it’s true that words change their meanings or acquire additional meanings over time, this in particular is a lose-lose proposition. It is insulting to perfectly normal gay people who are not lame, stupid, dorky, unmanly, etc, and it shows pure laziness and/or ignorance on the part of people who don’t have a bigger vocabulary to say what they really mean. If one means “lame,” say so. English is blessed with a massive vocabulary. Why not use it appropriately?

  • Mary Page

    If langauge is a living entity then the meanings of words will and do change over time. There
    is nothing wrong with word .. the problem is the prejudice associated with it. The word once was positive now is negative. Find a way to use the word in our writings that centers its meaning.

    Fight prejudice by affirmg the person or group it was directed towards. Words have power. Teach people especially by the way you chose to use the word. Personally I love gay people whether that would be. lovely or otherwise.

  • Nic Grosse

    I think there’s a definite difference between sometimes offensive and always offensive. Personally, I believe there’s no suck thing as always offensive because, as an adult, I don’t let words offend me. I also don’t believe it’s right to restrict the expression of another. It also is a very slippery slope. Should I never refer to anything as dumb for fear of offending mutes? Is it wrong to patronize an Irish pub called Mick’s? No on both counts. And as for retarded, when you use that word to describe something, it typically means that it’s of substandard intelligence. “This poorly set up intersection is retarded.” “Be careful with that knife, retard.” How is this offensive to retards? It’s not. It’s “offensive” to the loved ones of retards who WANT to be offended. C’mon, folks. Grow up and stop being such a bunch of fags. -No offense.

  • Bulbous

    “Gay” is absolutely a standard term for anything that meets with one’s disapproval. It arises from the general public’s distaste for homosexuality. It has replaced “lame” in the public lexicon, and has greatly surpassed it in usage.

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