Giving gay its due

 There is this friend of mine who always introduces himself thus: “I’m —– and I’m gay.” A ‘straight’ acquaintance once asked him, “If being gay is as natural as being straight, why do you have to announce it? I don’t tell the world I’m straight!” I have no idea what my friend said in response; the question was rhetorical anyway, so I don’t suppose any answer would’ve mattered! Clearly, the rhetorical interrogator was not clued in to reading acts of defiant assertion.

No, I’m not about to launch into a polemic on gay identity.  One home truth (from Wittgenstein, no less!) this blog adheres to is: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. My interest, as always, is in words. And this time the word is gay. (No pun intended.)

The inspiration for this post is a bizzare find-and-replace gaffe that produced these headlines:

Image courtesy: Language Log

All those headlines refer to an article about Tyson Gay, a US sprinter, and his performance in the US Olympic trials. The news story appeared originally on a web site run by a conservative Christian group that advocates, among other things presumably, homophobia. Which is perhaps why they’d replaced all occurrences of “gay” with “homosexual”. You can read about this story that’s caused mirth waves on the blogosphere here, here, and here.

Having been an editor myself, I thought I’d give the guys a fair trial,  try and understand why they’d have wanted to change “gay” to “homosexual”.  Ergo this etymological investigation. 

Today “gay” is preferred over “homosexual”; apparently the APA style also recommends it. That’s because “homosexual” has a dry, clinical connotation of deviance; it describes a man entirely in terms of his sexual partners.  Obviously a narrow and de-humanising definition. 

“Gay”, on the other hand, supposedly carries connotations of an entire  lifestyle, a culture, a way-of-being as it were, not just sexuality. A secret password that homosexual males used to help them identify each other has now become their liberating community name. 

So using “homosexual” for “gay” is an obvious ploy to insult. 

But there is another school of thought, the political-correctness brigade, which believes that using “gay” to refer to lesbians is male chauvinism. “Homosexual” would be the gender-neutral term. Aha!

In fact there are lesbians who object to being called gay. “We’re not gay, we’re angry,” some lesbian activists are reported to have said. (For the life of me I don’t remember where I read this, so it will have to go unacknowledged.) An obvious reference to the fact that lesbians are doubly discriminated against, being women and homosexual, and are therefore worse off than their male counterparts.  So the web site’s find-and-replace operation might just have been political correctness gone awry!  (Another reminder, if you ask me, that the computer can certainly help you type, but cannot write for you. )

But to return to the larger question I’m trying to address here – is “gay” really a more positive term than “homosexual”?

Originally,  the word was an adjective meaning ‘joyful or light-hearted’, with no baggage of connotations. Dictionary research tells me the word is French in origin (gai) but that the source of the French word is unknown. And it’s an old word – the earliest usage can be traced as far back as  to  Chaucer’s work (that’s 14th century for the, um, literarily challenged.)

Today the word is used almost exclusively to mean ‘male homosexual’. Now, a semantic transformation of this kind is the result of changing usage over time.  A quick look, then, at all those connotations over the centuries that have gone into making “gay” a liberating and humane word. Dave Wilton over at the Word Origins web site has some fascinating research on this – read it.

For those who want it all served up on a platter here – surprisingly, the original meaning of gay (joyful) is about the only positive connotation it has had over the centuries !

… an earlier sense of gay meaning addicted to pleasure, self-indulgent, or immoral … dates back to at least 1637.

By the early 19th century it had developed into a euphemism for prostitution.

And the modern day gay … is probably derived from the late 19th century slang term ‘gay cat’ … meaning a boy or young man who accompanies an older, more experienced tramp, with the implication of sexual favors being exchanged for protection and instruction  (Wilton)

The associations with sexuality and immorality are unmistakable.  Given all this, I can’t help wondering, is “homosexual” perhaps a less pejorative term than “gay”?!

Perhaps positive connotations for “gay” stem only from its original lexical meaning. Unfortunately, you just cannot call someone gay today without lifting straight eyebrows.

Language, I tell you, has a life of its own.



  1. Quirky Indian said

    I think your last sentence sums it up very well. And that is an important factor contributing to the spread and increased usage of English – it is a dynamic language, constantly evolving and co-opting words from other languages. Guess it also ties in with your earlier post, where, as you correctly pointed out, there is no “standard”.

  2. asmokescreen said

    Thanks QI. I must caution you, though, not to take anything on this blog seriously. It’s just largely irrelevant and cerebral ratiocination, playing around with words.


  3. Quirky Indian said

    Trying to get people to take things less seriously is my blog’s alleged raison d’etre.. .. I do enjoy playing with words – and I like to think that ratiocination is a strength of mine – so that works out fine!

  4. Prasanth said

    Hmm.. an interesting pespective
    While the history of gay is not exactly a most glowing one, there seems to have been a very political decision/trend over the years to accept it as a sign of self-expression by the gays themselves So I guess that would be the point which would qualify as the milestone in the interpretation of the word gay.

    A bit of Bhabha-ish mimicry what say?

    Whether the people who used this term were conscious of this is a different issue. But once the word has gained enough traction(when it did/does so is a contentious issue) I suppose it becomes the turning point in the use of that word.

  5. asmokescreen said

    Yes, of course, Prasanth, what a word means is determined largely by usage. Ergo the debate between purists and common speakers. Very often a certain connotation of a word gains currency mainly because a large number of speakers use it, even if the actual lexical meaning is quite different. And which side one chooses to throw one’s weight behind depends on whether one is a supporter of correctness or of majority usage.

    As for Bhabha – he and I don’t quite see eye to eye I’m afraid. 🙂

  6. asmokescreen said


    When thinking about the appropriation of ‘gay’ by male homosexuals, I did consider that perhaps it’s akin to what the reclamationists do. (Reclamationist feminists, part of the third-wave feminism movement, for instance reclaim pejorative words such as bitch, slut, whore, spinster, and advocate using them in an empowering sense. The point of course is that it’s empowering when women use them for themselves.) However, I chose to ignore this line of argument.

    What we say is necessarily circumscribed by the ideological frameworks we subscribe to. And mine here was purely etymological. Limited perhaps. What to do?

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