When did the word "gay" which initially had a meaning "merry" and "happy" gain another connotation which is now thought to be preliminary?

As I understand, the word in the main old meaning was an adjective. In the 19th century Charles Dickens actively used it. Also the word kept its meaning in the 20th century, including even the 50s, and was used quite often by Somerset Maugham (for example, in the story "Three fat women of Antibes").

So when did the word "gay" start losing its old meaning and when was it displaced by a modern meaning in people's consciousness? And how is it perceived by those people who were born after the word had changed? Do they see behind the word the old meaning or do they view this word only from a modern point of view? And what about older generation who probably first learnt this word in the old meaning?

  • 1
    This subject has actually been covered quite a bit in many online articles and resources. Perhaps you should read through some of them first? A couple of examples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay#History and etymonline.com/word/gay
    – Foogod
    Dec 18 '19 at 19:20
  • No amount of searching in dictionaries can encompass how any word was actually used in everyday, unwritten down life. As this site demands written references for every answer, it is always in another world than that of many users of the English language. All I can say is that in the late 1960s, in Cambridge University (not by then a particularly puritan place), male homosexuals were called, and identified themselves as 'queer'. They became 'gay' much later. If you want to know how I know that , it is because I was there.
    – JeremyC
    Dec 18 '19 at 22:45
  • 1
    I remember ‘gay’ being ‘light hearted’ or ‘merry’, when I was a child, like, around 1967. It appeared in Enid Blyton books. But even then, it was a bit archaic, sounded old fashioned. I was not really aware of its other meaning til about 1969-70 when a friends dad said he had to go to ‘a boring gay thing’,(event). But that might just be because I was then a bit older and becoming aware of such things. Hope that answers your question, a bit. This was in London, UK,
    – Jelila
    Dec 19 '19 at 8:04

The OED may say the word started being used in the 1960s, but it was widely used in the '40s and '50s as a code word in the community. Gay men ("gay" is really only appropriate for men, if you ask most lesbians) had a vast quantity of terms to signal to other gay men in order to identify each other without risking physical assault. There is an iconic event in "Bringing Up Baby"(1938) where Clark Gable is caught in a frilly women's bathrobe and when asked about his attire, responds, "Oh, I just went gay all of a sudden." So the term was in use in its community since the '30s at least. (I suspect that it was used a bit ironically, since it contradicted the actual experience of being "homosexual" and therefore targeted, beaten, fired, and murdered. There was a large purge of "gay" and suspected to be gay employees in the US State Department in the '50s -- literally in the thousands, as part of the McCarthy era.)

It was in standard use by the mid '60s, in the term "gay liberation." Groups like the "Gay Liberation Front" were so visible that "gay" ceased to be secret as a term and just became an acknowledgment that one supported gay rights or was gay oneself. So, in brief, a word developed by a particular crowd to describe themselves was adopted as code in order to recognize each other, and became so well known because of anti-gay activity that by the end of the '60s it was in the common language.

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    While I agree that "gay" tends to denote men, it is by no means unusual to hear it applied to a woman. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, used the words "I'm gay" in The Puppy Episode. Perhaps there is a regional or generational component to this. To a certain degree it will depend on the context in which the word is being used.
    – phoog
    Jan 27 '20 at 22:08
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    The OED doesn't say the word started in the 1960s, it says it was established usage for homosexual by then; and that a "subsequent more general currency" might make it dominant meaning now. It also says that the relationship of the different meanings is difficult to establish etymologically. Full quotes in my answer.
    – jonathanjo
    Jan 28 '20 at 18:51

Answering the first question, as per Merriam Webster, the new connotation of gay was started in 1953 specifically.

  • The OED gives gay as noun from 1953, but as an adjective from 1922 from Gertrude Stein, in Geography and Plays, used in a sentence about two women, and by Noel Coward in 1929.
    – jonathanjo
    Jan 27 '20 at 20:55
  • great addition, thanks jon Jan 28 '20 at 21:30

The Oxford English Dictionary has a long article for Gay in its many senses, and we can assume it was a very carefully curated article. My answer here is intended to give a plain answer as documented by the OED, which is conservative in its outlook. I'm sure a LGBQT+ sociolinguist would be able to give you a much more nuanced answer, as the adoption of the new meaning would not be uniform across different social or geographical groups.

https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77207 (Sadly, the OED requires a login, but you can use most UK library cards, without a fee).

The OED says the change took place after the 1960s. For a foreign learner of English, that's probably enough. (Though if you're interested in youth slang, see also the "lame" meaning below. Certainly commonly heard in London, I don't know if it's common elsewhere.)

The OED is about written English: "The OED is based on quotation evidence: real examples of words in use, throughout the written record."

1. Gay in the sense of "Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy." goes from c1255 to 1922 (PG Wodehouse) with two West Indian examples later (1974, 1990). There are about half a dozen slightly different meanings (which are mostly variants of "lively", "hedonistic", "beautiful", "showy" etc) which mostly end in the 1930s. A few ("happy and gay", "with gay abandon") are listed with contemporary quotations, or marked as regional.

2. Most of the homosexual meanings ("gay pride", "gay liberation", "gay icon") have first quotations from the 1960s and 70s. As an adjective, "Gay" in this sense is marked as "Originally U.S. slang" first quoted from 1922, as a noun in 1953.

3. A newer meaning "Foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of; ‘lame’. derogatory (frequently considered offensive)" is marked from 1978.

The OED has a long note:

The relationship between the various subsenses of sense A. 4 [lewd/promiscuous/uninhibited/hedonistic/homosexual] is difficult to establish from the available evidence. It seems most likely that the ‘homosexual’ sense A. 4d was primarily a development of sense A. 4b, [dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic] especially of its connotations of hedonism and lack of inhibition, while the ‘prostitution’ sense A. 4c [Esp. of a woman: living by prostitution] was a separate development from sense A. 4b. In quot. 1889 at sense A. 4c gay is used by a male prostitute of people engaged in prostitution, but not specifically in the sense ‘homosexual’ (compare quot. 1890 at sense A. 4c, quoting the same source). Some examples of gay cat n. at Compounds 2a imply a relationship with an older tramp involving sexual favours (compare punk n.1 2b, gunsel n. 1), but this cannot be taken as earlier evidence that gay itself was being used in the sense ‘homosexual’. However, early discomfiture among some homosexuals about the adoption of gay to describe themselves was based on the word's associations both with prostitution (sense A. 4c) and with frivolity and promiscuousness (sense A. 4b).

By the 1960s gay in the sense ‘homosexual’ (sense A. 4d) had become established as the preferred term of self-reference for many homosexual men. The subsequent more general currency of this sense has led some commentators to claim that this is now the dominant sense of the word, and that gay in its earlier meanings of ‘carefree’ or ‘bright and showy’ cannot readily be used today without at least a sense of double entendre.


As a straight man old enough to remember a time before "gay" meant "homosexual" to members of the majority community I have often thought that it originated in the phrase "Bachelor Gay". This goes back to at least 1916 and the operetta The Maid of the Mountains. Which includes the number A Bachelor Gay.

The narrator of this song is definitely heterosexual, the first verse is

A bachelor gay am I/ Though I suffer from Cupid's dart/ But never I vow will I say die/ In spite of an aching heart/ For a man who has loved A girl or two/ Though the fact must be confessed/ He always swears the whole way through/ To every girl he tries to woo/ That he loves her far the best

However I have come across a few homosexual men who have described themselves as "Just a bachelor gay" and have seen television programmes which suggest that "gay" might have meant "homosexual" (including lesbian) within the community (and possibly homosexual slang like Polari) before the Good As You campaign in New York which, I suspect, was a back formation from the "Bachelor Gay" origin.

It is probably impossible to prove this now but it strikes me as more likely than the idea that Good As You was the origin.

  • Indeed, a phrase commonly applied to gay men was "confirmed bachelor."
    – phoog
    Jan 27 '20 at 22:17

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