How did ‘Gay’ come to mean ‘Homosexual’?

How did ‘Gay’ come to mean ‘Homosexual’?

Originally published on

When I was in high school, my civics teacher complained that homosexuals “stole” the word gay.

I have no idea why he was talking about that, but he’s not alone. To listen to some straight people, it’s like they think that all the gays got together one day and voted on a word to replace “homosexual.” When “gay” got the most votes, we all laughed maniacally about how we were stealing straight people’s awesome word.

In reality, language doesn’t work that way.

“Gay” came into English from French in the 13th century and meant “merry.” By the 17th century, according to Merriam-Webster, the word had taken on a second, sexual meaning: “rakish,” or sexually immoral.

This meaning led to expressions like “gay blade,” which is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a dashing or lively man; a rake.” 18th century playwright Nicholas Rowe (who became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, so he was thoroughly mainstream for his time) referred to a character in one of his plays as a “gay Lothario” because he was a womanizer. The short 1904 film, The Gay Shoe Clerk, is about a very heterosexual shoe clerk who isn’t particularly merry – he’s “gay” because he kisses a female client he just met. By the 19th century, a “gay house” was a slang term for a brothel.

It’s from this very heterosexual sense of the term – not gay-as-in-merry – that it probably came to mean “homosexual.”

Merriam-Webster‘s theory is that gay-as-in-rakish led to the slang term “gaycat,” which referred to a young male hobo who worked with an older male hobo and may have had a sexual relationship with him. They cite a 1935 “handbook of underworld and prison slang” that includes an entry on the word “geycat,” defined as “a homosexual boy.”

But it’s possible that gay-as-in-rakish, with its antonym “straight,” came to mean “homosexual” through another queer subculture in the early 20th century.

Some of the first written uses of the word gay to unambiguously mean “homosexual” appear in the early 1950’s, which means that it was probably already slang among some gay people earlier than that. It appeared in books for gay people and occasionally in books written for straight audiences in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but the “merry” definition dominated while the “homosexual” meaning remained slang.

It wasn’t until Stonewall, the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, and increased gay visibility in the late 1960’s and 1970’s that the “homosexual” meaning became widely known. At the same time, the “happy” definition of the term fell out of usage.

There is no definitive explanation of why the “happy” definition stopped being used at around the same time as the “homosexual” definition became prominent. There’s really no reason people couldn’t use “gay” to mean “happy” today when, for centuries, it had multiple meanings. Even other words for people’s identities – like black, white, and straight – have multiple meanings.

The other common meaning of the word gay is “bad,” which comes from the “homosexual” meaning in the late 1970’s. If someone says that something is “so gay,” there’s no ambiguity. So even the word “gay” is perfectly capable of carrying more than one meaning today.

This story from 2010 provides some insight. A school in Australia changed a line in the children’s song “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.” The last line is “Gay your life must be,” and the school, tired of the kids bursting out in giggles at that line (but also refusing to just talk to the kids about why giggling at the word “gay” is all sorts of terrible), changed the line to “Fun your life must be.”

While the word “gay” can have multiple meanings, even today, none of those meanings can be positive because straight people think that being gay is shameful.

Like so many other things, it is not gay people or homosexuality or LGBTQ culture that’s to blame, it is homophobia. But I don’t expect people like my high school civics teacher to take responsibility for their attitudes.

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‘African on African… Black on Black… Minority on minority… The oppressed oppressing the oppressed. This can’t be xenophobia. There must be another name for this.’ – Kenny Badmus. ‘Women, poor


  1. himbo
    October 23, 08:54 Reply

    For gay men
    Anal assassin (United Kingdom) or anal astronaut [19]
    Arse bandit [20]
    Back door bandit [21]
    Backgammon player (late 18th century Britain) [22]
    Batty boy (alternatively botty boy), [23] also batty man
    Bear [24]
    Bent, bentshot[25] or bender [26][27]
    Bone smuggler [28]
    Brownie king or brown piper [29]
    Bufter, bufty (mainly Scottish) or booty buffer [19]
    Bugger (from Buggery )
    Bum bandit [21] , butt bandit, or bun bandit [26]
    Bum boy or bum chum, [30] also bum robber [31]
    Bum-driller [32]
    Bumhole engineer[33]
    Butt pirate, [34] butt rider, butt pilot, or butt rustler[34]
    Charlie ( rhyming slang for Charlie Ronce which rhymes with ponce) [35]
    Chi chi man (Jamaica and the Caribbean) [36][37]
    Chutney ferret [38]
    Cockstruction worker (referring to a gay man who is a construction worker) [39]
    Cock jockey [40]
    Cock knocker, cockknocker and cocknocker [40]
    Cockpipe cosmonaut [41]
    Crafty butcher[42]
    Daffodil or “daffy” , a derogatory term
    Donut puncher/muncher [14]
    Faggot , [43][44][45] Fag[46]
    Fairy (common and acceptable for part of the 20th century) [47]
    Finocchio (from Italy, meaning fennel) [48]
    Flamer [49]
    Friend of Franky
    Friend of Dorothy
    Fruit (also fruit loop, fruit packer, butt fruit) [52]
    Fudge packer [26]
    Harry hoofter, rhyming slang of poofter[53]
    Gaysian, referring to a gay Asian [54]
    Gym Bunny, often referring to a gay man who obsessively works out at the gym.
    Iron (hoof) or iron hoofter (rhyming slang for poof) [55]
    Jobby jabber (mainly Scottish with jobby referring to excrement) [56]
    Jirp Slurper (one who slurps jirp) [57]
    Knob jockey [58]
    Light in the loafers[59]
    Light in the pants [59]
    Light in the fedora [60]
    Limp wristed[61]
    Marmite miner[62]
    Meat Masseuse [39]
    Mary [63]
    Muscle Mary (see Gym Bunny)
    Nancy or nancy boy, [64] girlyboy [65] or nellie [66]
    Pansy [68]
    Pillow biter[69] or mattress muncher, [62] referring to anal sex when one partner is face-down often into a pillow
    Poof (variations include: poofter, pouf, poove, pooftah, pooff, puff) (U.K, Australia, New Zealand, California) [70]
    Queen , princess and variations[71]
    Bean queen (also taco queen or Salsa queen), gay man attracted to Hispanic men[63][72]
    Brownie queen, obsolete slang for gay man interested in anal sex (used by men who disliked anal sex) [73]
    Chicken queen, older gay man interested in younger or younger appearing men[74]
    Curry queen, gay man attracted to Asian-Indian gay men[40]
    Dinge queen, gay man attracted to black gay men (offensive use of “dinge” meaning black) [75]
    Drag queen, gay man into cross-dressing for performance[75]
    Grey queen, a gay person who works for the financial services industry (this term originates from the fact that in the 1950s, people who worked in this profession often wore grey flannel suits). [76]
    Gym queen, gay man given to athletic development [77]
    Pissy queen, gay man perceived as fussy[70]
    Potato queen, gay Asian man attracted mainly to white men. [78]
    Rice queen, gay man attracted mainly to East Asian men. [78]
    Scat queen, gay man into coprophilia[79]
    Ring raider[19]
    Sausage jockey (U.K) [80]
    Shirt lifter [81]
    Shit stabber [79]
    Sod (from Sodomy ) [82]
    Sperm gurgler (referring to the act of oral sex)
    Turd burglar[18]
    Twink , a young or young-looking gay man, with little body hair and a slender build [83]
    Uphill/upstairs gardener, referring to the logistics of anal intercourse [84]
    Woolly, [85] woofter and woolie woofter, a character from an Evening Standard cartoon and rhyming slang for poofter
    From Wikipedia.
    Some of these terms are hysterical.

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