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This is about the word “gay,” and how its meaning has changed.

I bring this up because I’m reading “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen), a masterpiece of nonfiction. Please don’t confuse the book with the movie “Out of Africa,” based on Blixen’s life but a sappy love story which has nothing to do with the book.

In the book Dinesen often uses the word gay for happy, high-spirited, etc. She published the book in 1937 and almost certainly did not know  gay would evolve into the chief noun for homosexual. If I am wrong about this please tell me.

A quick note: I am not ¬†criticizing gay people or their use of the word “gay.” So please don’t go there. I’m merely writing, to the best of my ability, about a fascinating linguistic shift in our language. OK?

It would be difficult for me to write in 2011, “I am gay,” or “I feel gay.”

My reader would stop and think, “Is he coming out of the closet? Is he telling me something?”

So, to avoid that quick pause in which I would lose a reader or at least make a reader halt, I would use “happy” or some word like that. I guess that means “gay” is lost to me as a descriptive because the word carries so many meanings now.

I looked gay up in my desk dictionary, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, 1985. The first defintion is “happily excited: merry.”

Homosexual is the fourth definition.

But if you look up gay on Wikipedia, homosexual is the first definition.

So things have changed.

One interesting note: In the great 1938 film “Bringing Up Baby,” Cary Grant is dressed in woman’s clothing and when asked why, he says, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden.”

There is a dispute about the line (there’s also a dispute about Grant’s sexuality). Some say he was using gay in the old sense. Some say he used it in the new sense. We’ll never know for sure, but this word sure has an interesting history.

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