Whilst watching Jeremy Kyle with my Grandma one of the ‘guests’ used the word ‘gay’ in an aggressive and negative manner. I noticed my grandma had a perplexed expression on her face…
Me: I have a friend who is ‘gay’, do you know what I mean by ‘gay’?
Grandma: Your friend must be a happy chappy, someone fun to be around and who’s always smiling.
Me: Well, she is fun to hang around with, but that’s not what I meant by ‘gay’.
Lillie (my 8 year old cousin interjected): I know what you mean, if your friend is ‘gay’ then they are ‘stupid’ and ‘rubbish’!
‘Gay’ to me, means homosexual and refers to someone who is attracted to a person of their own sex. But for my Grandma it refers to someone is who happy, and for my cousin Lillie it holds the negative connotations of something or someone which/who is ‘stupid’ or ‘rubbish’.
So how has it come to be that one word can hold three very different meanings for three different people? It seems language isn’t simple, and despite there being dictionary definitions language is malleable and changeable.
What once meant ‘happy’ now means ‘homosexual’ and is now being used to designate something as negative. Here is a brief background and etymology of the word ‘gay’:
The English word ‘gay’ has uncertain origins but is believed to come from the French word gai which is thought to have German roots. ‘Gay’ referred to someone who was ‘happy’, ‘cheerful’, ‘upbeat’ or generally ‘carefree’.
During the early 19th century, ‘gay’ referred to someone with a flamboyant sense of style. And during the late 19th century, the meaning of ‘gay’ expanded and referred to a female prostitute or a man that slept with numerous women, this conception is linked to the original meaning of being carefree, but adds a distinctly negative tone to the word.
During the early 20th century ‘gay’, yet again began to morph into something new. ‘Gay’ was now being used more and more to refer to men who had sex with men.
By the 1950’s it was firmly set that ‘gay’ referred to homosexual men (whilst homosexual women were called lesbians). Homosexual men encouraged the use of the term ‘gay’, as the term ‘homosexual’ sounded clinical.
By the late 20th century ‘gay’ included homosexual women as well as men, whilst continuing to carry the meaning of being, ‘upbeat’ and ‘carefree’.
And in the late 20th century, ‘gay’ has increasingly been used for something deemed ‘rubbish’, ‘inadequate’ or ‘stupid’.
Unfortunately the use of ‘gay’ with a negative meaning is also present within the media and pop culture. For example:
- Katy Perry’s song Ur so gay contains the lyrics “You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys.”
- The movie The Dilemma contains the line “Ladies and gentleman, electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual ‘gay’, but my parents are chaperoning the high school dance ‘gay’.”
What is striking about these two examples in particular is that they are both aware of the negative implications on homosexual people as they both differentiate between ‘gay’ as a sexuality and ‘gay’ as a negative and by doing so draw a clear link between the two. This highlights just how careless and inconsiderate we can be with our words and how wide spread the use of ‘gay’ as a negative has become!
In order to combat the negative use of the term, campaigns have been put in place to teach people about the power and influence of language and also to raise awareness regarding the seriousness of homophobia and the effects it can have. ‘Think Before You Speak’ is one such campaign and focuses on damaging language.