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  • Dictionary.com lists eight meanings of gay, with “merry, lively” as the first entry.

  • Microsoft banned an Xbox user for listing Fort Gay (a real place) as his hometown:

    Xbox Live considered the term gay absolutely inappropriate in any context.

As a non-native English speaker, my question is whether in contemporary English, does gay always mean homosexual? Are British and American English the same in this respect?

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According to the article, Microsoft ultimately did make it right. It was just a couple frontline employees who are trained to be hypersensitive about people using the word gay in a pejorative way who acted in a typical bureaucratic (read ham-fistedly insensitive to context) way. –  nohat Sep 8 '10 at 22:45
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To be pedantic, gay and homosexual don't mean quite the same thing. In fact, that's not just pedantic: it's important. salon.com/life/broadsheet/2010/02/12/gay_homosexual –  TRiG Oct 14 '10 at 21:22
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@TRiG, gay and homosexual do mean ="denote" the same thing. It's that they imply ="connote" different things. –  nohat Nov 12 '10 at 0:17
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@nohat: Being ham-fistedly insensitive to context seems to be the only way Microsoft treats the term "gay". Some time ago they removed words blue and pink from the Russian language spell checker database in Russian MS Office. Blue is used to denote a male gay person in Russian, and pink denotes a female gay person. So if you were to type "The sky is blue" or "I love my new pink shoes" in Russian, it would underline the words. –  GSerg Nov 28 '10 at 18:50
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@GSerg, as both a gay person and a former employee of Microsoft, I can assure you that you are incorrect about Microsoft. It is a very large organization and some people are ignorant, but as a whole the corporation is not totally insensitive to context and is in fact very progressive. –  nohat Nov 28 '10 at 19:06
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7 Answers 7

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I would say that the word gay means ‘homosexual’ only, with two caveats:

  1. A lot of people, especially young people, use gay as a generic adjective meaning ‘bad’ or ‘lame’. This is, of course, considered inappropriate and rude by polite society, but use of gay in this way is pervasive in situations where there are a lot of young people, such as video gaming communities (like XBox Live).
  2. People are definitely aware that gay used to mean ‘happy’, ‘merry’, or ‘lively’. The theme song to The Flintstones talks about a gay old time, and many people know that this usage at one time was predominant. There is a similar situation with the word queer. Some people might use gay to mean ‘merry’, but only in a tongue-in-cheek or double-entendre kind of way. The Corpus of Contemporary American English, for example, has two examples of “gay old time”, one from 1993, and one from 1994. There is one more example that is from the big screen adaptation of The Flintstones, also released in 1994.
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Didn't the Flintstones change their song to "we'll have a great old time" by the time the Flintstones movie came around? –  Kosmonaut Sep 9 '10 at 0:46
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@Kosmonaut: Apparently not: youtube.com/watch?v=VhdihISj628&feature=related –  Robert Cartaino Sep 9 '10 at 17:35
    
Hm. Well I know that at some point "gay" was turned into "great", but they might have had second thoughts about it when the movie came out. –  Kosmonaut Sep 9 '10 at 18:33
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If they were going to replace "gay", I would have thought "grand" would fit better than "great". –  John Ferguson Sep 29 '10 at 21:41
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Well, gay and great are near-rhymes, but grand has a different vowel sound. In any case, this is one instance of what I was talking about: youtube.com/watch?v=7daa4NF99XQ –  Kosmonaut Sep 29 '10 at 22:47
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In contemporary English, I would say that yes, gay means homosexual only.

Its original meaning was, as you mention, merry or lively, and you will certainly see it used this way if you look at written English from a few decades ago. However, it's very unlikely you'd see it used that way today.

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Wikipedia has a huge article on the subject. –  RegDwigнt Sep 8 '10 at 22:14
    
OK, thanks. And thanks to RegDwight for the Wikipedia link. –  j-g-faustus Sep 8 '10 at 22:31
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I find it fabulous that @RegDwight has commented ont this topic :) –  John Ferguson Sep 29 '10 at 20:19
    
@John: to be fair, it was Bernie who wrote that comment for me. –  RegDwigнt Sep 30 '10 at 9:33
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it also means "lame", see nohat's answer. –  Claudiu Nov 11 '10 at 22:50
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In commonly used English today, "gay" has become interchangeable with "homosexual" and most readers will understand it in that way, either as an adjective or as a noun. Though I'm not a fan of the plural form 'gays'.

As always, though, context is the most important thing because the english language is fabulously ambiguous towards the meaning of "gay". There are certain phrases, which admittedly are not in common usage, but where the reader would understand that the word gay would not mean homosexual. Unless there was a clear double meaning. e.g. "gay hue", or "gay abandon". Also, applying "gay" to transient things, such as a mood, would probably alert the reader to the fact you did indeed mean 'happy'.

In addition, "gaily" and "gaiety" would not be generally understood as pertaining to homosexuality though they are usually only used in archaic contexts. Unless perhaps the writer meant "gaiety" in terms of stereotypical homosexual behaviour, e.g. "there was much gaiety" could mean "everyone was acting in a very camp manner", or perhaps something like "there were many men who were proud to be gay".

Personally, because I am caught between favouring clear and concise language and loving the use of flowery, overblown and overwrought, archaic language, I try to reserve the word gay for when I mean merry. I also enjoy the possibilities of secondary meanings.

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Gay is also a last name. My high school music teacher was Mrs. Gay.

I disagree with every answer that says Gay only means homosexual, especially when the question already points out that there is a place named Fort Gay. That's the kind of thinking that got Microsoft in hot water in the first place.

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Maybe we should reclaim the word "gay" to mean "merry" and "care free", by using it in this sense all the time. This would make the word less effective as a derogatory word.

The word were originally used by the gay (in this case homosexual) community because it were a positive term.

I feel quite gay right now. ;)

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A number of words kept their old meanings (in America) through the 1960s, but changed their meanings decisively as a result of the "sexual revolution" that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Gay" and "queer" are two words that have predominantly one connotation after 1970. The (original) Flintstones came out before this time.

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In UK English, the word gay has changed its meaning more than any other any word in recent times IMO.

In late 19th century English, a “gay girl” was a prostitute.

The word also meant lively and happy; hence the daft old dance the Gay Gordons, which involved everyone jumping around and shouting “Hoots Mon”.

Gay was also quite a common girls’ name.

In the 1970s there was something called “The Gay Liberation Front”, the first well known and well publicized organization fighting for the rights of homosexual males. This is where the meaning of gay for homosexual comes from. I would guess that before then, this meaning of gay was only used in “homosexual slang” — that is, between themselves.

More recently gay as an adjective meaning a lame person or thing, has come into use among very young people, mostly of school age. This usage has been frowned upon by many older people.

In the 1970s there was a very popular gay and very camp comedian who would play on the ambiguities of meaning, and say things like “I’m feeling very gay today.”

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Etymology of the word 'gay' –  coleopterist Sep 21 '12 at 14:39
    
This doesn't answer the question, that asks about specifically about contemporary English. –  Hugo Sep 21 '12 at 18:37
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protected by RegDwigнt Sep 21 '12 at 14:33

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