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The deep roots of gaiety

By Anatoly Liberman

The question about the origin of gay “homosexual” has been asked and answered many times (and always correctly), so that we needn’t expect sensational discoveries in this area. The adjective gay, first attested in Middle English, is of French descent; in the fourteenth century it meant both “joyous” and “bright; showy.” The OED gives no attestations of gay “immoral” before 1637. Yet it is not improbable that this sense is much older but that it remained part of low slang, unfamiliar to the majority of English speakers, even such as were sensitive to street usage. Dickens began writing Dombey and Son in 1846 and gave the family name Gay to Walter, the future husband of Florence, the sweet and suffering character (one can even say the protagonist) of his novel. The combination Mrs. Walter Gay (or Florence Gay) did not shock or amuse his contemporaries, though gay woman “prostitute” had already made it even into printed books (the earliest citation in the OED goes back to 1825). Gay “homosexual” dates to the 1930’s, but it could hardly have been the product of slow semantic development from “depraved” and “perverse.” While “unnatural attraction,” to use the euphemism of the past epoch, was looked upon as a deviation and a vice, gay “male prostitute,” along with “whore,” would suggested itself to many. In the sixties of the twentieth century, homosexual men accepted gay as a neutral term, and that is the end of the story. A slight touch of novelty in my summary is that I don’t believe in “merry, joyous” acquiring negative connotations gradually and suspect that they have been present since the middle period but were suppressed or even tabooed; see also below. The sense “male prostitute,” perhaps especially with reference to a passive homosexual, may be old too. Thus, if I am right, the history of gay did not run parallel to that of faggot: in fag ~ faggot, reference to homosexuals indeed appeared only in the twentieth century.

The main mystery is the origin of the French word, the etymon of Engl. gay. The first edition of the OED offered no solution; the OED online expanded considerably the etymological part of the entry but refrained from taking sides and only listed a few proposals. This is natural: the history of gay is obscure and will, most likely, remain a matter of controversy in the future. Before I say what little I can on this subject, a short introduction is needed. It is well-known that words like warranty and guarantee, warden and guardian, William and Guillaume, among many others, are etymological doublets pairwise. The French for war is guerre, that is, the doublet of guerre serves also as its English gloss. We have here Old Germanic words with initial w-. When Central Old French borrowed them, w-, a sound alien to Romance, was replaced with gu- (first only before the vowel a); with time, w after g was lost. Later such words often migrated to English, where the spelling gu- bears witness to their stay “abroad.” But in Northern and Anglo- French, the dialects of greater importance to the history of English than the French of Paris, initial w- survived. Consequently, both warden and guardian are ultimately of Germanic origin, but guardian was taken over from Central French, whereas warden is a guest from Northern French, so that w- makes the word look as though it had never left it Germanic home.

The main old hypotheses concerning gay were based on the idea that it had come to French from some Germanic language: central (Franconian) or southern (Gothic). Therefore, scholars looked for appropriate adjectives beginning with g or w. The main candidates were Old High German gahi “quick, precipitous, daring” and wahi “shining, beautiful” (both with long a). Those adjectives have been recorded with several more senses, but we do not need full lists. Romance etymological dictionaries (at gai and so forth) usually defend wahi or more rarely gahi (look up jäh, the reflex of gahi, in German dictionaries if you are interested in more information). Both etymologies encounter considerable difficulties, because the path from either “precipitous” or “shining” to “merry” is hard to reconstruct. The second variant is preferable on account of Engl. gay “showy,” but, in English, “showy” seems to be a figurative meaning, while in French gai this sense does not exist at all.

To be sure, the sought-for etymon did not have to be Germanic: it might as well be a Romance word, and here our story again branches off into two. Latin gaudium “joy” has been suggested as the source of the adjective (do many people still remember the “hymn”: “Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus”? “Let us therefore rejoice while we are young”). The other guess connected gay and jay (the bird name). The interplay of initial g- and j- in French deserves a long essay, but we’ll let it be, because the idea that French gai meant “merry as a jay” (or that the jay got its name because it was “a merry bird”) has been refuted quite efficiently. The derivation from gaudium still has distinguished supporters. A stray publication once defended German geil “lecherous, randy, horny” as the etymon of gai. This idea lacks value. I am now coming to the climax of my etymological thriller.

The regular readers of this blog know that I am a great admirer of Frank Chance, whose piercing judgment and etymological acumen (when I am agitated, I begin to speak like Anthony Trollope or like Kipling’s bicolored python—sorry) was equal to Skeat’s and James A. H. Murray’s. Oxford University Press would do the world a great favor if it reprinted ALL his contributions in a cheap slim volume with an index. In 1861 he published in Notes and Queries a short article (“note”), which I’ll reproduce with numerous abridgments:

Gaîne. –The etymology of this Fr. word signifying sheath seems to me instructive. It comes…from the Lat. vagina…. The g in gaîne, therefore, really corresponds to the v in vagina…. In a similar way, I think, our adj. gay might be readily deduced from the Lat. vagus, or perhaps rather from the corresponding Ital. vago, which means both wandering, roaming, and pleasant, agreeable, the connexion apparently being the freedom from restraint implied by both classes of words.”

Some time ago, I devoted a post to the origin of the word bigot. Its etymology was discovered in a short review that no one seems to have read. Before that I told a similar story about conundrum. Quite naturally, French, Spanish, and German scholars have never heard of Frank Chance, for he published his letters only in Notes and Queries and occasionally in The Academy. But Skeat and Murray read this periodical and regularly contributed to it, so that it is incomprehensible why they missed Chance’s conjecture.

A hundred and thirty years later the noted German historical linguist Harri Meier offered exactly the same etymology and even referred to vagina as a piece of corroborating evidence. He cited not only Latin vagus “wandering, rambling; inconstant” (compare Engl. vague, vagrant, vagabond, extravagant, vagary, and others with the same root) but also (and this is especially important) the senses current in the living Romance languages and such derivatives as Italian svagarsi “divert one’s mind “and “enjoy oneself,” svago “relaxation, diversion, amusement,” and a few French verbs of the same type. Incidentally, Old French gai already meant “high-spirited; frivolous, fickle; libertine,” while Latin poets called a flighty girl vaga puella and vaga juventa (quite possibly, such maidens were not just flighty). It appears that Latin vagus ~ vaga indeed continued into the Romance languages with the sense “free from restraint” and underwent what is called an amelioration of meaning (from “libertine; frivolous” to “merry, vivacious”). For brevity’s sake, I’ll skip the question of whether gai had anything to do with its partial synonym gaillard. Middle English gay must have inherited both senses, but one became “standard,” whereas the other (because of its negative connotations) led an undignified life as part of low slang, until it came to the surface and ousted the idea of merriment. A gay man can now be full of pep or depressed and sad. We no longer hear either the tautology or the oxymoron. Thus, gay ends up as a Romance word without Germanic ancestors.

I believe that Chance’s etymology, rediscovered by Meier, who was unaware of a talented predecessor, is the best we have, but I am not a Romance scholar and will let specialists resolve the dispute. Regardless of their reaction, one thing is clear. Etymologists constantly force open doors. They lack solid bibliographies and rediscover old solutions or wander in the dark. I said this in my posts on conundrum and bigot. I’ll say it again now.

This is a portrait of John Gay (1685-1732), the author of The Beggar’s Opera. Of those who have borne this name, he may be the most famous representative.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The Beggar’s Opera was produced by John Rich, and its success, we are told, made Rich gay and Gay rich.

    The city of New York, it seems, spends quite a bit replacing the street signs on Gay St. in Greenwich Village. For some reason, people keep stealing them.

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