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"
Tom Robinson a British musician and singer, one of the first, if not the very first pop artist who did not disguise or hide his homosexuality from the general public. Until then homosexual actors, musicians, athletes or anyone in the public eye had two choices in life: to keep their homosexuality a secret, especially from the media, or adopt the mannerisms and a code of dress which were very camp but at the same time (ironically) never admitting their sexual preferences publicly.
Tom Robinson released a very successful song entitled (Sing if you're) Glad to be Gay, it was the mid-70s, and I was still at a Catholic primary school when I remember quite distinctly hearing gay being used for the first time to counteract the BrEng derogatory terms such as: poofter, poof, queer, not normal, fairy and queen that were rife at the time.
Glad to be Gay
For me, a young child living in London at the time, the term gay (meaning homosexual and not "happy") was used much more frequently by the media and the general public after the release of "Glad to be Gay". It also helped that Tom Robinson looked straight and was not in the least camp, he did not fit the stereotypical idea of how homosexuals looked and behaved. The song was also incredibly catchy, upbeat, joyful and anyone with an iota of sensitivity in their body could understand that this song was saying to the world: Don't be ashamed of who you are, stand tall and be proud.
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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