gay

Definitions

General English

  • adjective attracted to people of the same sex, or relating to people like this
  • adjective bright and lively
  • noun a person who is attracted to someone of the same sex

Medical

  • adjective relating to sexual activity among people of the same sex

Slang

  • adjective homosexual. In late-medieval English gay often had the sense of showy or affected as well as happy and light-hearted. In British slang of the 18th and 19th centuries it was a euphemism for sexually available or living an immoral life, and was invariably applied to women, usually prostitutes. In the early 20th century it was adopted as a code word by the British and American homosexual community, an innocent-sounding term which they could use of themselves and each other. The word had the secondary purpose of reinforcing homosexuals’ positive perception of their sexual identity as opposed to the derisive or disapproving terminology of the heterosexual world. Gay was widely used in the theatrical milieu by the mid-1960s and, when homosexuals began to assert themselves openly in the later 1960s, it supplanted all alternatives to become the standard non-discriminatory designation.
  • adjective bad, in poor taste, socially inept or unsophisticated. This non-homophobic use of the term has been in vogue among teenagers in the USA since the 1980s and in the UK since 2000. It was given prominence by its use in 2006 by British radio DJ Chris Moyles.

Origin & History of “gay”

English borrowed gay from Old French gai, an adjective of uncertain origin connected by some with Old high German gāhi ‘sudden, impulsive’. ‘Happy’ is its ancestral meaning, stretching back to Old French gai. The 20th-century sense ‘homosexual’, which first came into general use in the 1950s, can probably be traced back to the 17th-century meaning ‘sexually dissolute’. By the early 19th century it was being applied specifically to the world of prostitution, and it seems not unlikely that male prostitutes and their male clients could have been the vector for the present-day usage. A reported 1868 song by the US female impersonator will S. Hays was supposedly called ‘The Gay young clerk in the Dry Goods Store’, but it is not entirely clear what ‘gay’ is supposed to have meant here, and the earliest reliable printed record of the ‘homosexual’ sense is from 1933. The adjective underwent a further semantic flipflop in the early 21st century, when kids’ slang commandeered it, paradoxically, for ‘sad’.
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