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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  1. Stan

    I remember as a 1st grade kid-early/mid 60′s,one of my favorite songs was Waltzing Matilda…”what gay life you must lead”. Is that still in the song?…And the Flintsones who “Had a gay ‘O time” in thier theme song..last I noticed on TBS..That’s edited out.
    I had a cousin who married a guy back in the early 70′s..his last name was-well,you know. They had kids who were teased so bad,so mercilously,,they had to change the kids last names for school. Legally away from school? I dont know,come to think of it..never asked.

    July 1st, 2011 9:29 am

  2. Stan

    Oop,Just googled..it was the Kookaburra song. Same difference.

    July 1st, 2011 9:44 am

  3. Rickster

    I grew up watching the Flintstones. We all know, according to their opening theme song, they will “have a gay old time”. So even back in the 60′s, the word “gay” meant happy.

    July 1st, 2011 10:11 am

  4. Frank in Minnesota

    Thinking about how certian phrases and words were used in their time. As readers, i think we should appreciate the art of that time and moment when written or used …like when Twain used a certian word that is not socially acceptable now, but it was then,you know? We have to be smart and fair about all this….and yes, i do remember the Flintstones theme song….pretty innocent stuff.

    July 1st, 2011 10:22 am

  5. gary

    Tolkien had gay hobbits. probably met all 4 of the
    Webster’s definitions……I think you are over analyzing a
    cute little word :)

    July 1st, 2011 11:58 am

  6. dennypat

    I remember about 10 years ago an assistant to the mayor of Cleveland (I think) used the word ‘nigardly’ (a word having nothing to do with race) and caught holy hell from some black politicians and had to resign. Just over a misunderstanding of a word.
    So to Lowells point, it is not just the changing of a words intrpretation, but it’s new impact that seems to matter most.

    July 1st, 2011 12:02 pm

  7. B-Rad

    Mr. Cohn:
    I probably am dating myself, but as I was hitchhiking around in
    the 8th grade, a young guy picked me up and asked how I liked
    gay people.
    “Oh, I like them just fine, all of my friends are gay.”
    “Great, shall I get a motel room for us.”
    “Why? I’m going home.”
    I finally figured it out. Duh.
    Just so your readers aren’t briefly confused as I was,
    you might reword (there’s also a dispute about Grant’s

    July 1st, 2011 12:53 pm

  8. tkh

    interesting subject. some young people now use it to mean something less positive. as in “that was so gay” there has been a backlash to using the term this way.. I think it’s interesting that ownership over the word seems to be at issue. It will be usuage I think that will be the determative factor. I’m reminded of my youth when the term bad was used as something good. “that’s baaad” was a positive term. It was the first time I realized language usage and its history was not necessarily universal. At the time I was seeing a girl from Socal and she said to me , you know you often say something’s bad when I think it’s good. I still laugh at that.

    July 1st, 2011 1:21 pm

  9. captveg

    That line in Bringing Up Baby was almost certainly meant that he went “silly / happy-go-lucky” all of a sudden, but at least the change in priorities of definitions hasn’t made it lose its comic value. Indeed, it’s probably enhanced it.
    (One of my favorite comedies – nice reference Lowell).

    July 1st, 2011 2:14 pm

  10. Dave T

    I grew up in the 70′s and 80′s and had learned the word in the first sense, meaning happy, then have certainly seen (heard) it change meaning over time. It is interesting how some words take on new meaning as we travel through time.
    Another example, Fag. According to the Websters Online Dictionary it is an intransitive verb meaning: to toil. Also as a noun: toil, drudgery. There are other listed meanings that are anything but what the current vernacular means. I recall this word more than others only because over the course of my rudimentary studies I encountered it and myself questioned the meaning. I want to say it was in a Dickens novel or something of the sort. I would be interested to see if today that word is changed or strciken from the original work.

    July 1st, 2011 2:57 pm

  11. Jim Noonan

    For that matter, fag used to mean cigarette. Try using that word in such a fashion these days.

    July 1st, 2011 6:33 pm

  12. Stan

    Yeah,I remember in the 70′s Dick Cavett was interviewing Muhammad Ali and asked him if he was “nigardly?”. There was dead silence for a second…Ali though,knew Cavett was trying to get his goat. He just smiled..and then Cavett explained what it meant..that pedantic personality of his being what it is…

    July 2nd, 2011 6:03 am

  13. KezarMike

    Now, are we SURE that Fred and Barney were just going to have a “happy” old time back there in Bedrock?

    July 2nd, 2011 6:36 am

  14. Johnny Christo

    I tend to enjoy a bowl of faggots, a shag, and a fag!!!

    July 2nd, 2011 9:12 am

  15. Stan

    Remember when “you dumbass ” was ok to say as a greeting? ,No,wait..it’s always been bad as a greeting..

    July 2nd, 2011 10:40 am

  16. Blind Tom

    Ralphie May explained this at great length at the Big Black Comedy Show. It’s on youtube. I highly recommend it…


    July 2nd, 2011 11:55 am

  17. Neal

    Blind Tom love Ralphie May, have seen his show live the last 2 years. In Johnny comes Marching home today, gay was used about the soldiers.Can you imagine if they came out today with Ben Gay, Aids, and spic and span.Marketing nightmare?

    July 2nd, 2011 7:02 pm

  18. Stan

    I couldnt remember where the Zito/Zita post was…BUT,if Volkswagon means “Peoples car” does Vogelsong mean “Peoples song?” My German is lousy.

    July 3rd, 2011 10:13 am

  19. Lo Sbandato

    No, Stan, a “vogel” is a bird.

    I always found the word “gay” grating, even in its original usage (like “the Gay 90′s”), but it really chaps my hide is inventing new, even more irritating forms, like “gaydom”, “gayness” (which would in fact be “gaiety”), or, horror of horrors, “gay” as a noun. Please, children, I’m begging you, just stop.

    For the record, I’m a “pedant”, not a “pendant” (or “pederast”).

    July 4th, 2011 12:16 pm

  20. Stan

    I always thought OTIS BIRDSONG was a cool name.

    July 6th, 2011 6:50 am

  21. KauaiRobert

    Sorta like how Hitler single-handedly ended the use of Adolf as a new baby name.
    I mean…how many kids born these days are named Adolf?
    Also, the tiny Hitler mustache fad pretty much died with him too–for obvoius reasons, of course.

    July 6th, 2011 3:39 pm

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