I'm beginning to envy Fielding, of all people. Here are a few quotes from his novel:

I'll buy the gayest gown I can get ...

He was besides active, genteel, gay, and good-humoured ...

Among the gay young fellows who were at this season at Bath, Mr Fitzpatrick was one.

... for I have observed, the more merry and gay and good-humoured my husband hath at any time been in company, the more sullen and morose he was sure to become at our next private meeting.

From The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1821: No.1; No.2; No.3; No.4

Take a closer look at the last part: according to Fielding "merry" and "gay" aren't synonymous or he wouldn't use the two words together.

So what would a modern writer use instead of "gay"? Should someone write a novel on the same themes today, what word would you have them use?

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    Where does Fielding say that "merry" and "gay" aren't synonymous?? – Hot Licks Nov 29 '15 at 3:05
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    Synonymia: the repetition of synonyms or synonymous phrases in order to emphasize. "Repetition of the same point is called tautology and is usually to be avoided. However when it is deliberately done, it can be used to create emphasis and make something small seem larger than it would otherwise." – Hot Licks Nov 29 '15 at 3:10
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the questioner refuses to accept that his question is flawed, or at least needs further explanation. – Hot Licks Nov 29 '15 at 3:15
  1. "the gayest gown"

In this context, 'gay' means

Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.

  1. "genteel, gay, and good-humoured"

I suppose

Finely or showily dressed

could be argued or, less likely,

Noble; beautiful; excellent, fine

but I prefer this

Of persons, their attributes, actions, etc.: light-hearted, carefree; manifesting, characterized by, or disposed to joy and mirth; exuberantly cheerful, merry; sportive.

Historically speaking, this sense was extant in the first half of the 1700s, although it became more common in the 1800s.

  1. "gay young fellows"

This use could be in the sense I gave for use 1, or any of the senses I gave for 2, but I think it verges on or wholly embraces this meaning:

Originally of persons and later also more widely: dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic.

This meaning was also extant in the first half of the 1700s.

  1. "merry and gay and good-humoured"

The repeated "and" (as well as the character of the speaker and the epistolary context) is for me a dead giveaway that the meaning is being shaded, rather than replaced anew, and so the sense is that I preferred for 2.

Thus, some words that could be used to replace 'gay':

  1. 'showy', 'fancy'.
  2. 'high-spirited', 'cheerful', 'outgoing', 'exuberant'.
  3. 'hedonistic', 'dissolute', 'wicked'.
  4. 'cheerful', 'light-hearted'.

[All definitions and historical data from "gay, adj., adv., and n.". OED Online. September 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77207?rskey=DgjuLj&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed November 28, 2015).]

Oh, and you forgot one:

Upon my troth, his breath is as sweet as a nosegay.

I cannot guess how this might reckon with contemporary parochialism, but the meaning is clearly

A bunch of flowers or herbs, esp. ones having a sweet smell; a small bouquet, a posy.

So likely replacements include, taking into account modern preferences for cliched phrasing, similes, and metaphors ("they're so comfortable! just like in advertising!"), would be

A. 'rose', 'caramel kiss'.

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    @Mari-LouA, no sweat. I regard the comments here as ephemera of ephemera, sort of like marginal notes on a palimpsest, but with a great deal less permanence. If the comments bring up anything worth adding to the answer, I add it and credit whoever came up with it (when possible). – JEL Nov 28 '15 at 22:12
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    However, someone just deleted all the comments again. – Hot Licks Nov 29 '15 at 3:11
  • Yeah. They must have been bored out of their wits. – Ricky Nov 29 '15 at 6:43

Take a closer look at the last part: according to Fielding "merry" and "gay" aren't even remotely synonymous.

Well Fielding was (and is) wrong ... in the context merry and gay are synonymous, and he was just being repetitive for literary reasons. So merry remains the best alternative to gay to this day.

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    But would you use the term merry today? Isn't that rather old fashioned/quaint too? – Mari-Lou A Nov 28 '15 at 5:41
  • @Mari-Lou Where I'm from, "merry" colloquially means slightly drunk (say after a few beers) at the point where everything in the world seems great. It is common, but only in this context. That and "Merry Christmas", which in December is ubiquitous. – Calchas Nov 28 '15 at 6:56
  • @Calchas oh yes, I had forgotten about the tipsy meaning. That expression is still used today. thanks for reminding me! – Mari-Lou A Nov 28 '15 at 6:58
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    Actually, Fielding didn't say they were not synonymous, Ricky did, misinterpreting what Fielding wrote. – Hot Licks Nov 28 '15 at 14:07
  • @Mari-LouA- There’s always funnest which I’ll grant is not inthe same register as merry But going out to look for the funnest dress yoi could find is something I think people might say today. – Jim Nov 28 '15 at 16:59

Fielding does not say that "merry" and "gay" are not synonymous. Rather he is simply employing a well-known technique for writing:

Synonymia: the repetition of synonyms or synonymous phrases in order to emphasize. "Repetition of the same point is called tautology and is usually to be avoided. However when it is deliberately done, it can be used to create emphasis and make something small seem larger than it would otherwise."

And knowing that Fielding often employs this technique, a skillful "translator", attempting to maintain Fielding's "voice", would employ the same technique, vs attempting to stick to a literal, word-for-word translation.

Eg (pulling words out of a hat) "the more merry and gay and good-humoured" might become "the more merry and happy and upbeat".

But of course the choice of the right terms is up to the translator, perhaps with the assistance of a good thesaurus.

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  • -1 for not answering the question. The question is not concerned whether merry and gay are synonymous. Neither the OP nor yourself know the motivation behind Fielding's choice of expressions, know exactly what were the connotations that each and every word carried in 1749, you can only speculate. – Mari-Lou A Nov 29 '15 at 6:38
  • @Mari-LouA: while normally this kind of thing would be more appropriate for the comments, it's a bit long for that (not to mention, I'd be afraid it would just get deleted for mysterious reasons). I'm glad Hot Licks posted it as an answer. And the end attempts to answer the question, doesn't it? It even has an example of the original sentence rewritten. – herisson Nov 29 '15 at 6:50
  • @sumelic Well, it was pointed out to me, not too long ago, that posts which do not answer the question should and need to be deleted. Hot Licks is answering a different question, he is answering the question that he has posted in several comments, which the OP, for whatever reason, does not feel compelled to respond. Please note; however, the edit history, the OP has slightly modified his tone. I.e., give the guy some slack. – Mari-Lou A Nov 29 '15 at 6:53

I'm going to attempt ... to answer it. It's not going to be a particularly good, satisfying answer, at least not to me. I'm only doing it (and inviting all those ... uh ... merry ... downvotes) on the chance that it might get someone thinking along the right lines ... and stimulate and inspire them sufficiently to come up with something better.

Before it became an ironic, and then altogether too serious, euphemism for "homosexual," (and later still a code word for "lame, weak"), the adjective "gay" denoted a light-to-considerable degree of promiscuity, both male and female; and before that only female promiscuity. It was used facetiously or sarcastically.

"She's a gay woman. She'll drink anything and sleep with anyone."

Finally, as we peer with more and more intensity into the murky waters of history, we'll discover that up until the 1920's, the word "gay" meant "showing a merry, lively mood," etc, or something like it.

The word's etymology is said to be purely Germanic (Latin or Greek strains); but it did sneak into English by way of Old French. In Old Germanic it meant "fast, sudden." According to dictionary.com, the approximate time of its arrival (on Chaucer's estimable desk, no doubt) is the turn of the 13th Century:


The British Dictionary definition (the same link) mentions glibly that it wasn't any ordinary Old French that adopted the word from some unspecified Germanic dialect: it was Old Provençal, in which it was pronounced as "gai" (gahy).

I know not a word of Old French, nor indeed Old Provençal; but I do seem to recall that "gai" means "cheerful" in today's French.

Now. In their understandably hasty zest, the previous answerers seem to have overlooked three words that are at least as good as "merry," and probably better; those are:


which comes pretty damn close (but no cigar); and which Dictionary.com defines as, and I quote:

in good spirits; gay; merry:


which would be a wonderful choice if anyone ever used it except well-read people; and


which, unfortunately, cannot be sung with any confidence. Here's why. You'll recall the classic song from the classic movie whose title escapes me just now: "I'm going to gay Paree" in quick staccato mode; now try singing "I'm going to blithe Paree" just as quickly and see if it comes out intelligibly.

That's the scoop, so far. I hope someone sees it as a good challenge (which it is), remembers that the language he or she speaks is the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible, as the poet said, and comes up with a better answer.

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