When did the main meaning of the word 'gay' shift from happy to homosexual? How did the meaning evolve, if there is a relation between the two?
The development is actually quite straightforward once it has been pointed out.
As your question indicates that you already know, 'gay' originally meant 'carefree' and 'happy'.
Over time, the liberalness of 'carefree' increased and by the 1600s, it was used to describe someone of promiscuous sexual proclivities. Womanisers, prostitutes and other such sexually liberal people were termed 'gay'.
The idea of sexuality within the word continued to become more liberal and sexual promiscuity came to be sexual obscurity and eventually, by C20 (yes, that recent) it was used to refer to homosexuals.
Now, that meaning has developed even further and the word 'gay' has taken on a negative connotation (since many oppose homosexuality) and can now be used almost interchangeably with the word 'bad', in certain youth cultures. i.e.: "I don't want that one; it's gay"
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The New Oxford American Dictionary has:
Etymonline has more to say:
(many citations omitted; see the link above for the full text)
For some personal research, Google ngram gives two interesting graphs:
Both graphs show a reversal in the trend of usage of gay in the late 1970s. Of course, those graphs are established from books, so written usage in other media and oral usage probably predate that in books.
protected by tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 18:42
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