The once often used term for merry or cheerful, “gay” has completely morphed into many different meanings during the 20th century. The word gay, or Gai in old French language, originally meant “carefree,” “merry,” and “bright and showy,” and often appeared as theater titles such as Gaîté Parisienne, a 1938 ballet. In the 17th century, gay had sexual connotations because the word carefree implied immoral sexual behaviors. Even to this day, gay is once again changing from its former defintion. With definitions evolving over the years to fit into modern day slang, the word gay has managed to take on various meanings and implications.
In the early 30’s, French terminology Gai was merely a state of being meaning happy or carefree. Used throughout history, the word had no other meanings, and it wasn’t until the 17th century when carefree implied uninhibited by moral constraints, and gay had altered into slang for addicted to pleasures and dissipations. In the 19th century, the term “gay-life” was established, and described sexual behaviors between heterosexual people that were thought to be unethical, such as prostitution. It did not, at the time, mean sexual interactions between partners of the same sex, but later included this situation. If it had not been for the altered meaning in the 17th century, gay may have not taken the route that it has today.
Before looking up the actual etymology of the word gay, I thought that the dictionary definition would be just another way of saying homosexual. I was surprised to find that gay, according to Webster’s Dictionary, actually meant: “merry, cheerful, light-hearted, bright in color, brilliant, pleasure loving,” and not until the very end of the list did it state, “homosexual.” Gay can be used to describe men or women, and is known worldwide. Even though the original definition means happy or cheerful, if gay is said today, the initial reaction of the public is going to refer to a homosexual person.
Over the past five years or so, gay has also become a highly used slang word among the younger generations to describe something negative or something of dislike. I personally hear and use gay on a regular basis as an adjective for something uncomfortable, displeasing, or ugly, and not because it refers to homosexual people as immoral. However, this slang most likely originated by someone who disapproved of a gay lifestyle. It is not politically correct, but the development of words is not always approved or certified before it becomes used among the public. With gay becoming more of a negative statement and less of a lifestyle, the homosexual population has claimed this word as derogatory. This has made the word gay a very controversial statement. With two very definite and modern usages, it can be very confusing of what the actual implications are.
The way I have come to define the word gay is leaning more towards the slang version meaning something of dislike. However, when I do say it, I do not think of it as a means to put down the homosexual community. Being among the younger generation of slang terminology, it has been an accustomed way of calling something dumb, stupid, useless, or boring. I can see how this might offend a “gay” way of life, but with the development of the word, it does not include any certain way of living to be classified in a negative way.
During the last 75 years, the word gay has acquired more than three meanings. To some, it simply means to be in a happy, carefree state of being, others it means to live a promiscuous lifestyle, but more familiarly, it is used as being homosexual or as young slang term for something negative. With the evolution of lifestyles, definitions, and meanings, gay has taken on many forms and may still become something of much different implications.