When I was in high school in the mid 1970s a friend of mine wrote an essay entitled, "Why I Support Gay Liberation." At first glance I was surprised because my friend had recently become a born again Christian and we all know how Christians feel about gays. But I had also secretly suspected my friend was himself gay and my real surprise was the manner in which he was outing himself. Back in the dark days of the mid to late 20th century, there were no high school gay clubs and mixers. Being gay was most certainly not cool. It invited social ostracism, taunting and beatings.
But as I read my friend's essay, it became clear that what he was advocating was not the social liberation of homosexuals, rather, it was the liberation of the word "gay" from its application to homosexuals. My friend, it seemed, was incensed that a perfectly nice word denoting happy frivolity had been hijacked by a bunch of sodomites.
What my friend had tapped into, and what I find interesting about this, is that in the span of my very short life (up to that point) I had witnessed a frequently used word change completely in meaning. When I was young, my own mother would gushingly say I was "such a gay lad." Even in my late childhood when I learned what homosexuality was, the terms for homosexuals were queers, homos or fags. And if you wanted to hurl an insult that really bit you used the term faggot. Nobody called them gay. And suddenly two or three years later, gay was the only word used. And the word only had one meaning. Even my mother (who also lamented the semantic shift) knew enough not to use it in the wrong way, although, ironically, being British, she continued to use the word "fag" for cigarette, as in; "Oh, I could sure use a fag right about now." Regrettably, my father never said this although I would have paid money to witness it.
How did this happen? How did gay end up meaning gay?
The word gay is derived from the Old French word "gai," meaning high spirited or merry. It became part of the English lexicon sometime after the Norman invasion and changed little in meaning over the next 900 years. Its conventional usage seemed to peak in the late the 19th century. The term was associated with flamboyance and style, hence "Don we now our gay apparel" (from the song "Deck the Halls"), "gay nineties" and "gay Paris." A fat old man laughing in a beer hall may have been merry but he wouldn't be described as gay. To be gay you had to have a kind of insouciant flair. Youth, wit, good looks and a nifty top hat didn't hurt either. All characteristics - perhaps not coincidentally - that we associate stereotypically with homosexuals. In the gay nineties, Oscar Wilde was the epitome of a gay man in both senses of the word. Although there is no direct evidence, I suspect the application of the word in reference to homosexuals grew out of the fact that many of the gay men of the gay nineties and gay Paris were... um... gay.
It's worth noting that the word gay at this time had minimal sexual overtones. While a "gay house" meant a brothel and the word gay was occasionally used to describe women of "loose" moral character, the application of the word was generally in regard to the cavalier frivolity of the attendant lifestyles. Remember that this was the late Victorian age. Anything fun, including sex, was frowned upon.
So, when did the term begin to be applied to homosexuals? The first recorded reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to1951 but that doesn't mean much, given that the word "fuck" didn't appear in the OED until 1972. There is some speculation that the term gay may have been used among homosexuals in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Apparently, in some circles, gay men wore Green And Yellow carnations to recognize one another. While this seems pretty iffy as an explanation, it is quite likely that the usage grew out of the need for a code word, recognized widely by insiders but opaque to outsiders.
According to the Dictionary of American Slang, the word gay was used as an adjective to describe homosexuals by 1920. In Noel Erskine's 1933 Dictionary of Underworld & Prison Slang, the term "gay cat" applied to a younger homosexual partner. Note that the word was still used in its adjective form. This is partly a conservative function of language but it's also probable that because it was only used by gays about other gays there was no need to refer to a person by a specific noun. Nouns are necessary for pejorative use (queer, fag, dyke etc.). It's far less effective to yell "Hey, you gay man!" out of a car window.
Gay continued to be used self-referentially by homosexuals throughout most of the fifties and sixties, although the term was also used by those sympathetic to homosexuals. The reason why nobody else picked up on it was because people unsympathetic to gays (probably a majority) had other perfectly good words for them, nearly all of them pejorative. The neutral term, homosexual, used by most media, was considered too formal for casual use.
Gay, as in homosexual, broke into the common vernacular in the late sixties and early seventies, driven by a shift in the social/political zeitgeist when gays and other heretofore marginalized groups discovered the power of self-identity. The gay rights movement which percolated during the sixties, was galvanized by the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 (when groups of gay men rioted after a bathhouse crackdown by New York city police). In its aftermath, gay activists sought a universal, non-pejorative word, that could serve as an identifier. "Homosexual" was out because it had been medicalized (homosexuality was considered a mental illness until the 1970s). For a while a there was a movement to insinuate the term "homophile", into the general lexicon. The term wasn't quite right, however. For one thing, it was technically wrong. It actually meant same-loving. The accurate term would have been androphile.
But the biggest problem with homophile was its artifice. It just didn't catch on. This was largely because gays had a perfectly good word right under their noses. Usage of gay took off in the mainstream because it was already the default word in use in the gay community. It also took off because it fitted so well. The word in its original meaning evoked impressions of the very things we associate with homosexuals: style, wit, frivolity, good times etc. And by this time the word, in its original meaning, had fallen out of use. There was no competition. The new meaning of gay slipped in pretty much without resistance at a time when gays were coming out of the closet and making their presence felt like never before.
What is interesting, is that in the 40 years since the word came into generalized use, it has never developed into a pejorative. True, it has taken on the meaning of trashy in terms of style, as in "Oh, that handbag is so gay." But nobody yells "gay" as an epithet out of a car window the way that I've heard people use other non-pejorative inventions.
Partly this is to the result of a seismic shift in attitude towards all things gay. People like gays now. There are gays in movies, on television. There are gay clubs in high school. Gays come out of the closet now and nobody cares. The word has no negative association because the association is no longer negative. But some of this has to do with the word itself. It's just so damned positive. It means happy for godsakes.
It's worth noting that a new movement is brewing to embrace former pejoratives such as "queer" and even "faggot", the way black Americans have reclaimed "nigga". The use of these words is political. It's felt that they have more power. Hence Queer as Folk. Will the word gay end up being swept into the semantic dustbin? Possibly, but I doubt it. Now that gays have found the perfect word, they're not going to give it up, no matter how much my mother wishes they would.
Gaydar: What's The Signal?
The Nurture And Nature Of Homophobia