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.
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.