Monday, 16 April 2012
Posted by M.H. Forsyth
I was watching Bringing Up Baby on Friday night. It's a classic Cary Grant film from 1939, and it reminded me of the word gay.
Nobody is quite sure when gay shifted meaning from jolly to homosexual. It's complicated by the fact that gay could also mean libidinous, as evidenced by a 1939 citation from the OED:
She understood that there had been ‘ladies’. Her father had in fact a‥reputation as ‘gay’.
Which looks a trifle strange to modern eyes. Also, the whole reason that the word gay came to mean homosexual was that it could mean jolly. Here is an explanation of its origins from 1941 by a man named Painter:
Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was ‘wise’ or even homosexual. One might ask: ‘Are there any gay spots in Boston?’ And by a slight accent put on the word ‘gay’ the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant.
And 1941 is the first year that there are unambiguous records of the word in its Uranian sense. However, there are lots of previous citations where gay could just possibly maybe refer to manly love and one of the ones cited in the OED is the film Bringing Up Baby. There's a point where Cary Grant has his clothes stolen whilst he's in the shower and is therefore forced to wander around in a lady's negligée. It's utterly uncertain what the word means here, especially as "go gay" could mean "lose your mind", so judge for yourself.
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