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!”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • Natural manhood

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

  • thebluebird11

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

  • Cecily

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

  • 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.

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  • 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…

  • 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.

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