Now that Anderson Cooper has come out of the closet, mercifully leaving more space for his black suits, matching ties, and other sartorial bric-a-brac, it’s an appropriate time to consider once again how the word gay turned out as it did.
It entered English in the 12th or 13th century, from the Old French gai, meaning “happy, pleasant, charming.” An earlier root was Old High German gahi (“quick or sudden”). Very soon gay took on the added meaning of “wanton, lewd, or lascivious”—presumably because people of that type seemed so happy and pleasant and charming.
One of those louche folks, the Wife of Bath, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 1390s, says of her fifth husband:
But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay…
When that he wolde han my bele chose.
This can be modernized to mean: “In bed, he was so forward and high-spirited, when he wanted to enjoy my vagina.” Gay is thus vigorously heterosexual, as far as Chaucer is concerned.
Gay retained its meanings of “merry,” as well as “morally loose,” for the next 500 years. Both meanings were conflated in such usages as the Gay Nineties, gay blade, and a profusion of Gaiety Theatres usually housing vaudeville or burlesque.
The earliest that anyone has traced gay to mean “homosexual” is the late 19th century. John Ayto in 20th Century Words cites an 1868 song, "The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store," sung by female impersonator Will S. Hays, in which the meaning of gay is ambiguous but may imply effeminacy.
Hugh Rawson in Wicked Words makes note of a male prostitute using gay in reference to male homosexuals in London's Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, in which a male brothel was raided by police.
In the 1890s the term gay cat was used to mean a “young hobo,” one who is new on the road—and possibly recruited as a same-sex partner by older tramps. Gay cat meaning "homosexual boy" is attested in the 1933 dictionary Underworld & Prison Slang.
The Dictionary of American Slang reports that gay was used by homosexual men among themselves in this sense since about 1920.
In the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant's character is forced to wear a woman's frilly gown in one scene. When asked why, he replies, "Because I just went gay...all of a sudden.” This line, an ad lib by Grant, was probably interpreted by most people to mean "frivolous or silly," but an underlying homosexual allusion can also be read into it.
By the 1960s gay was clearly established to mean “homosexual.” In 1963 it was used by Albert Ellis inThe Intelligent Woman's Guide to Man-Hunting. Similarly, Hubert Selby Jr. in his 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn wrote, "[He] took pride in being a homosexual by feeling intellectually and esthetically superior to those (especially women) who weren't gay..."
Recently, a new pejorative use of gay has entered teenage language, with the derisive meaning of “stupid” or “ridiculous,” as in the phrase “That is so gay.” While not specifically a homosexual reference, it does carry the implication of something “weak” or “unmanly.”
The only things weak about the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are his moral resolve and the quality of his verse, both of which are on shameless display in this appalling vignette:
A studious young intellectual
Found that sex was quite ineffectual—
All attempts at coition
Fell short of fruition,
Both homo- and heterosexual.