This is a post by NiceTryDad on instagram.

Son: "What does the word "gay" mean?"
Me: "It means happy."
Son: "Oh, are you gay?"
Me: "No, son, I have a wife."

Later then, I googled up the meaning of the word "gay". And I found that it has some meanings in its older use, like having or showing a merry, lively mood, and also bright or showy. And also, this site explains:

Gay meaning ‘homosexual’ became established in the 1960s as the term preferred by homosexual men to describe themselves. It is now the standard accepted term throughout the English-speaking world. As a result, the centuries-old other senses of gay meaning either ‘carefree’ or ‘bright and showy’ have more or less dropped out of natural use. The word gay cannot be readily used today in these older senses without arousing a sense of double entendre, despite concerted attempts by some to keep them alive. Gay in its modern sense typically refers to men (lesbian being the standard term for homosexual women) but in some contexts it can be used of both men and women

I know that that post was just a joke, but I'm wondering if I can use the word gay to indicate that someone's happy in business or academical writings. Since people would always refer it to its modern sense (homosexuality).

  • 2
    It's not clear from this question if you understand that the quoted post is a joke based on the two definitions of "gay". Another related post: Does “gay” still include the meaning “merry”?
    – herisson
    Jul 6, 2017 at 5:52
  • I don't find the joke to be particularly amusing or clever though. You can still be "gay", be married and have children, nowadays. I suppose calling your samesex partner, if he is a man, your "wife" is very uncommon. But if me is a female, then the joke might be funnier. (She can't be gay because she has a wife = is married)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 6, 2017 at 8:06
  • @BillJ At least we agree on some things. It's quite amusing that there are those who complain bitterly about the even newer 'crazy / dicky / kaput' sense ('This deckchair's gay') but who welcomed the first hijacking. Jul 6, 2017 at 8:12
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    @Mari-LouA in addition to that, there's a joke, I'm not gay, my partner is (assuming both same-sex) Jul 6, 2017 at 8:33
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    About 20 years ago I read an article that asserted that "gay", with the meaning of "homosexual", was adopted from a similar French term which was in turn adopted from an Arabic/North African term along the lines of "gayje". However, on a couple of occasions since I have searched the web for mention of this and have not found anything. Although just now I found this.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 6, 2017 at 11:34

2 Answers 2


You ask:

I know that that was a joke, but is it still appropriate to say gay to refer that someone's happy or merry these days? Like in writings or something.

When words have multiple meanings, each individual meaning can be used appropriately, given suitable context. The tricky part is to make sure that the context constrains the word to only the meaning or meanings that are intended.

For example, saying "the yolk has set" would almost certainly be understood to mean that it has hardened, particularly if the context is cooking. Saying "the sun has set" would usually not convey the same sense of the word set (i.e. that the sun has 'hardened') - it would instead almost certainly be read as talking about a period of time in the day-night cycle.

Now, when a word has undergone a semantic shift, the context must work a lot harder to bring out the older meaning of the term. For example, awful no longer carries the sense of "full of awe", so one can't just speak of an "awful experience"; one might have to speak of an "ecstatic, blissful, or as the ancients might say, awful experience".

In the case of the word gay, popular usage these days would tend to default to the homosexual interpretation, but it's not a semantic shift. Both senses are understood, but since the happy sense of the word is no longer dominant, it requires more from the context.

So in short, yes, it's still appropriate to use the word gay in the sense of happy, so long as it's presented in appropriate context.

  • The usage of "gay" meaning "merry" and "happy" today is so very gay. And very old-fashioned, and very quaint.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 6, 2017 at 8:39
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    @IvanDi "gay" also means "lame", "twee" or "effeminate". So I wouldn't recommend NNSs to use it, unless they can confidently avoid the ambiguity sense. Ack, just use the term "happy" and be done with it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 6, 2017 at 8:49
  • Yeah, I know that. In my native language there's also a word that means "lame" and sometimes being associated with homosexuality. But I've never confused with its usage before. And now I do.
    – user242745
    Jul 6, 2017 at 8:59
  • @Mari-LouA: The alternate meanings of gay that you listed are referring to the meaning of "homosexual", with the added implication that it is bad. If the speaker does not think homosexuality is bad, then "gay" does not carry the meaning of e.g. "lame". E.g. if I call you "the Hitler of English.SE", there is an implication that I mean you act like a fascist dictator, because that is how most people stereotypically think of Hitler. But at face value, I could also simply be commending your oratory skill. This depends on the speaker's context, rather than an objective meaning.
    – Flater
    Jul 6, 2017 at 9:13
  • This answer suggests that the term gay meaning "happy", "bright" and "cheerful" can still be used in everyday situations as long as the context is made clear. People nowadays simply do not use the term "gay" in its old fashioned sense. Knowing its original meaning is not the same as using it. Can you please provide a few examples dated from the mid1980s onwards where "gay = happy" is used.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 8, 2017 at 15:46

I'm going to answer this but please don't anyone get on my case because I have no opinion on the matter. I don't want to offend anyone but I do want to offer an honest answer.

For most people in the US, or native English speakers, the first thing that will come to mind when they hear "gay" will be "homosexual". However, it's perfectly okay to use the word "gay" to mean "merry, lively, and/or happy". When it is used in that way it is more often in writing versus in speech.

The bottom line is if you walk up to many people and say, "I'm feeling very gay today.", they are going to think you mean you are homosexual. The mature ones will likely understand what you mean from your context and attitude. The immature ones will snicker and laugh.

  • Can you add examples of its usage in writings? Even, is there still any writing that use it that way?
    – user242745
    Jul 6, 2017 at 5:39
  • @IvanDi Yes, there are still writings that use 'gay' that way. One of my favorite Christmas songs has a verse that says: Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Make the Yule-tide gay, From now on, our troubles will be miles away carols.org.uk/have_yourself_a_merry_little_christmas.htm
    – Phil14
    Jul 6, 2017 at 7:31
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    @Phil14 - Those lyrics are from 1943. It still meant ’merry’ then.
    – Jim
    Jul 6, 2017 at 16:57
  • @Phil14 It still meant 'merry' in 1961, try the Flintstones lyric "When you're with the Flintstones / Have a yabba-dabba-doo time / A dabba-doo time / We'll have a gay old time". Personally I always suspected that 'gay' was a Polari term for homosexual derived from 'bachelor gay' long before anyone coined the acronym GAY from Good As You, but as a straight guy what do I know?
    – BoldBen
    Jul 7, 2017 at 19:03