Wave a gay goodbye |
"Can you tell me the origin of using the word gay for homosexuals?" writes Mary Best, "and why is a Boston Cream Pie called a pie when it's obviously a cake?"
I couldn't help Mary with Boston Cream Pie, but the history of gay is another thing. It's only a few years since my newspaper, The Courier-Mail, buried an old friend - the word gay meaning lively, joyous, bright - and accepted gay meaning "homosexual".
Until 1991 the word in its homosexual sense, according to The Courier-Mail style book, was not standard and had to be surrounded with inverted commas: "gay". The policy owed much to a senior executive who objected strongly to what he saw as the hijacking by homosexuals of a useful and perfectly inoffensive word.
The style book - which sets rules for the use of English by the newspaper's reporters and sub-editors - at that time recommended that gay not be used at all, but accepted that fitting homosexual in headlines was asking a bit much of the sub-editors. When the executive moved to another newspaper in the group, the policy was changed - without drawing any adverse comment from readers. And, naturally, the homosexual community welcomed the decision to "ratify" the non-pejorative word they favored as a description.
Certainly gay is more kind than queer, poofter, fag, pansy or any of the other words that heterosexuals have used to describe homosexuals.
But has gay really been hijacked? Was it always innocent? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives its derivation as Middle English, from the Old French gai, origin unknown.
The 1987 Collins-Birmingham University (COBUILD) dictionary, which concerns itself only with current meanings, gives gay only in the homosexual sense; for other meanings it refers the reader to gaiety and gaily. Strangely, these two words have never wandered in meaning to the extent that their parent has.
The word gay has changed meanings many times over the centuries, both as a standard English word and as a slang term, but it has nearly always had a shady side.
Two of the less offensive definitions in Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang are as abbreviations of gay and hearty, rhyming slang for "party" and gay and frisky for "whisky". That's appropriate, because one 19th century meaning of gay was "slightly drunk".
The Oxford dictionary gives as one of the 17th century meanings of gay: "Addicted to social pleasures and dissipations; often euphemistic: Of immoral life."
Partridge says gaying instrument was used in the 19th century to mean the male member but this meaning goes back further than that. For instance Capt Francis Grose's Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Elequence, which had its second edition in 1811, defines gaying instrument as "penis". Grose supposedly died in Dublin in 1791 so that meaning probably goes back to the mid-1700s.
By the 19th century the English language had acquired gay nouns: a dupe; adjectives: impudent, of women leading an immoral or harlots's life; and verbs: to copulate. By 1903 the sense of living by prostitution had reached Australia. In that year the Sydney Truth reported: "Most serious allegations have been made... such as the bribery of harlots in brothels... $80 worth of champagne having... found its way into a gay house."
In 1908 Truth reported: "It was alleged that he had been taken down in a gay house for $44 worth."
Many observers maintain that the word's homosexual meaning arrived in the 1930s, probably from America. If so, Hollywood didn't notice, because MGM didn't hesitate to use the title The Gay Bride in 1934, Warner Brothers were quite happy with The Gay Sisters in 1948 and Twentieth Century Fox didn't flinch from The Gay Intruders, also in 1948.
The homosexual meaning actually goes back to the late 19th century. English journalist Philip Howard, in New Words For Old, mentions London's Cleveland St scandal of 1889 during which a male prostitute, testifying in court, described himself as gay.
The use of gay boy for "homosexual" was recorded in Australia in 1951- about the same time as someone coined gay deceivers for "falsies".
Elsewhere in New Words For Old Howard has what should probably be the last word in any argument about whether the battle to "save" gay has been lost.
Writing in 1977 he said: "It would be difficult today to use the 19th century nursery rhyme as it was used in the House of Lords in 1948 to congratulate Princess Elizabeth, as (the Queen) then was, on the birth of the Prince of Wales:
The child that is born on the Sabbath day,
Is fair and wise, and good and gay."
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