What does “Gay New York” mean to you?

gay new york

1907 Theater Poster

Library of Congress

Over time, the meanings of words can change drastically. In my lifetime, one word whose meaning has changed more than just about any other is gay.

When I was growing up, the word had nothing at all, as far as I knew, with sexual preferences. There were other words that were used for that, words that could be — and were — used as verbal weapons. Gay, on the other hand, implied joy, happiness, pleasantness — in other words, it had positive and pleasant connotations.

Today, when someone refers to another individual as gay, they are not implying anything about positive emotions, but neither are they, necessarily, saying anything negative. In many ways, the transformed word has supplanted other words that, in their own way and the way they were used, were twisted and nasty.

And that’s generally a good thing.

But the old words are still there, along with the hate and bigotry. And that’s unfortunate.

Definitions of gay on the Web:

  • cheery: bright and pleasant; promoting a feeling of cheer; “a cheery hello”; “a gay sunny room”; “a sunny smile”
  • full of or showing high-spirited merriment; “when hearts were young and gay”; “a poet could not but be gay, in such a jocund company”- Wordsworth; “the jolly crowd at the reunion”; “jolly old Saint Nick”; “a jovial old gentleman”; “have a merry Christmas”; “peals of merry laughter”; “a mirthful …
  • given to social pleasures often including dissipation; “led a gay Bohemian life”; “a gay old rogue with an eye for the ladies”
  • brave: brightly colored and showy; “girls decked out in brave new dresses”; “brave banners flying”; “`braw’ is a Scottish word”; “a dress a bit too gay for her years”; “birds with gay plumage”
  • offering fun and gaiety; “a festive (or festal) occasion”; “gay and exciting night life”; “a merry evening”
  • homosexual or arousing homosexual desires
  • homosexual: someone who practices homosexuality; having a sexual attraction to persons of the same sex
    wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn
Uncategorized, values

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  • Cath Lawson Aug 20, 2008

    Hi Mike – The meaning of the word gay has changed a lot hasn’t it. I was quite young when it changed and recall trying to stop myself from sniggering when some old fogey used the word to describe something happy and jolly.

    I wonder what other words have changed in meaning completely and how this happens to begin with?

  • teeni Aug 20, 2008

    The meaning of the word gay certainly has changed. I know it used to mean “happy” but I’ve seen it used in a derogatory manner when as kids, we would tell each other, “You’re so gay,” when someone did something we were ashamed of. But it seems to have evolved finally into meaning, “one who has homosexual tendencies.” So now it is no longer derogatory, just matter of fact. Like Cath said, I think it would be interesting to examine other English words that have changed dramatically in their meaning over time.

  • Vered Aug 20, 2008

    You made an interesting observation: today, the word “gay” is said in a neutral way. I am glad about it too.

  • Urban Panther Aug 20, 2008

    Sadly the word gay is not necessarily used in a neutral way. It is quite common to hear one teenager accuse another teenager of ‘being so gay’. When I took my nephew to task on this, he was quite surprised that I was offended because he wasn’t even thinking that he was slighting homosexuals in anyway. To him, it was simply an insult, and he hadn’t taken the time to figure out why. He was just parroting the Expression of the Day.

  • Writer Dad Aug 21, 2008

    When I was growing up, it was definitely used as an insult from one guy to another. Now, I think it’s lost some of its edge, but it’s still four letters (even with only three).

  • XUP Aug 21, 2008

    Once upon a time in merry olde early 19th century England, “gay” also was a reference to prostitution. A phrase like, “are ye gay, Jenny?” meant, “are you for sale?” The homosexual community in the US was using it early in the 20th century. It first appeared in literature in a Noel Coward play in the late 1920s. And yes, it’s still widely being used as an insult among teens and young adults.

  • Andy Aug 21, 2008

    hmmmm… from my observation; Im 16, and my friends all use the word “Gay” in just about every other sentence. Maybe the word “Gay” has become more neutral and lost its harsh touch.

    So the question is, will words like “f*g” also lose its touch aswell? When will we as a society draw the line as to where we should stop using these terms.

    Im not an innocent individual either… at my age… I use profanity just as much as the next guy.. just part of our vocabulary..

    Good post

  • Alex Fayle Aug 23, 2008

    I hear it used all the time to mean stupid, geeky or lame (yes another word that comes from something else). I’ve actually had people say to me after saying “Oh, that’s so gay” – “Alex, I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. When use the word, I’m don’t mean homosexual, I mean stupid.”

    I then patiently explain to them how the word has changed meaning and that despite their intentions, they were just incredibly offensive and please stop using the word.

    When I used to teach rock-climbing to kids and they would call each other gay, I’d say “You say that like it’s a bad thing. It’s like saying ‘ew! you’re so blue-eyed!’ Why would that be bad?” They, of course, would just look at me like I was the most blue-eyed person they’d ever met. 😉

  • Onedia Aug 23, 2008

    Why haven’t I been reading you before? I find that your multi generational readers are a delight. The comments are well spoken. I like your take on this. I too find the etymology of words to be a commentary on society and the ideas of a culture. It is so true that people so often use words without understanding what they are really saying especially without understanding what they are saying about themselves.

    The late George Carlin’s genius was in vividly pointing out the ironies of words.

    This was just a plain great post. Thanks.

  • teeni Aug 23, 2008

    Although where I live, it seems most people don’t use the word gay as an insult any longer, just as a word to express their sexual orientation, it appears from these comments that in other parts of the country and world it is still being used in a derisive manner. I just posted a similar comment to this at another site recently. My thinking on it is that it all depends on the context. I don’t think we need to blame words or stop using them completely. That always seems like overkill in the desire to be politically correct. What we need is to teach people how to use words so they don’t hurt. After all, a rock was not a weapon until someone decided to use it to hurt someone else with it.

  • Mike Goad Sep 2, 2008

    Catching up is hard to do!

    Thanks for all of your comments. I had intended to delay responding in order to try to keep from inducing any more influence on the comments than what was expressed in my my original words.

    @Cath Lawson – I think words come to mean something in one area and then are popularized through the popular culture of the day. It likely happens a lot faster today with all of the instant media. And, as XUP explained, it was used as a homosexual reference long before I was aware of it.

    @teeni – as others have expressed here, the word is not derogatory in the experiences of some, while to others it still is. Unfortunately, there are some people who can take a word, twist it and make it evil just in the way that they say it.

    @Urban Panther – thanks for sharing that. I never understood, even as a kid myself, why kids have to insult others. Of course, more often than not, I was on the receiving end.

    @Writer Dad – I think that whether it’s lost it’s “edge” depends on where one is located, who is using it, and the context.

    @XUP – Very interesting history. Thanks!

    @Andy – Thanks much for your comment. From what I understand, the “F” word didn’t have near the shock value in the 19th century that it had in the late 20th century. Things change and evolve. I personally have never thought that profanity is necessary. I don’t swear much — and I was a sailor, and didn’t swear much then! While it doesn’t usually bother me much, I have asked coworkers to leave my office when the profanity got excessive.

    @Alex Fayle – Thanks for your contribution. I’ve never heard it used in the way that you described. (so are you blue-eyed? 😉 just kidding!)

    @Oneida – Thanks! I agree that what people say and the way that they say it can be very revealing. George Carlin was certainly a special person.

    Again, thanks all for commenting.

  • Dot Nov 13, 2008

    As a former linguist, I’m always interested in words and their origins. I’ve heard on TV a number of times, “Dude, you’re so gay” or “That’s so gay,” with a meaning similar to “That’s so lame.” Will we ever root out irrational hatred? I hope so.

  • Betty Reid Soskin Nov 14, 2008

    Finally got a minute to travel over to your website and — great work, Mike!

    There is so much around this issue of “gay-ness” that I was unaware of. I have no idea when the word had transformed from ” light-hearted and whimsical” to its homosexual meaning. The other steps in between were unknown to me. There were lots of other words — mostly degrading — that I knew from having raised a son who invited them all without intention. We, as a family, had a front row seat on the gradual transformation process. He’s no longer with us, sadly.

    For me it was really helpful to read these comments and to not be weighted down with all that baggage. I’m finally open to hearing some of the less hurtful definitions and it serves us all well (lame, geeky, etc.).

    Thanks for taking this subject on, Mike.

    Now if I can find the time between breaths to read more of your thoughts.

    Bless technology!

    Betty

  • Mike Goad Nov 14, 2008

    Dot – Thanks for doing what you are doing and for contributing your thoughts.

    Betty – Thanks. I’m glad it was helpful.

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