“Gay” was the first queer word I ever learned, and the first queer thing I ever called myself. Something about “lesbian” didn’t sit right with me, and I wasn’t yet aware of reclamation, of the bright side of pejoratives — the spark that happens when you turn a weapon on itself. Plus I liked the sneakiness. Gay meant happy, right? You could claim it while admitting nothing. It was a rainbow dream mask.
But even before it got the rest of its colors, this word blushed. Pleasure, joy, and other gaieties are perpetually societally fraught, and gay has the scars to prove it — it’s been punned on, leaned on, worn proudly, hidden behind, argued over, and ping-ponged across the net of respectability ever since it was invented. If words could break, gay might have a long time ago. Luckily it bent instead. Here’s the beginning of how it happened.
The most common etymology of the word “gay” has it rooted in the Proto-Indo-European root *gey- (“to go”). This evolved into *gheng- (“to stride”) which became the Proto-Germanic *ganhaz/*ganhwaz (“sudden”), and then the Old High German gahi (“quick, impulsive”). The move to Old French jai (“merry”) brought the recognizable definition and a nice modern jauntiness. Jai became gai likely due to the influence of Gothic gaheis (“impetuous”), and soon we had the Middle English gay, direct ancestor of the word we use today.
Easy enough — except that etymology is an inexact science based on barely traceable exchanges that took place thousands of years ago, so not everyone agrees on what happened. Anatoly Liberman has an alternate theory that roots gay in Old High German wahi (“shining”/”beautiful”), based on a g/w interchangibility that we see borne out in word pairs like “guardian” and “warden,” or “guerrilla” and “war.” But he’s even more attached to a different explanation from the 19th century master Frank Chance. An “excellent etymologist, now almost forgotten,” Chance used to publish almost exclusively in Notes and Queries, a quarterly where scholars and hobbyists traded notes and asked each other questions — kind of like an early Formspring, but for linguistics and lexicography. In an 1861 Note, Chance took on “gay” via an analogy to the French gaîne, or “sheath,” which comes from the Latin vagina, also “sheath” (and also your bonus etymology-of-the-day).
“The g in gaîne,” Chance explains, “corresponds to the v in vagina… In a similar way, I think, our adjective “gay” might be readily deduced from the Latin vagus, or perhaps from the corresponding Italian vago, which means both wandering, roaming, and pleasant, agreeable.” About a century and a third later, German linguist Harri Meier added some evidence to the pile, listing Italian cognates like svagarsi (“amuse oneself”) and svago (“diversion”).
I have also become attached to this theory, not only because it’s more fun, but also because it means that the start of gay’s backstory involves a gradual influx of positive feeling — what semantician Stephen Ullman calls an “amelioration of meaning.” As Liberman points out, the Latin vagus often meant “flighty” or “frivolous,” which, though not the worst possible things to call someone, aren’t as sunshiney as the merriment and joie de vivre implied by “gay” — see, for example, Propertius’s Elegy V, in which a “vagis puellis” is compared negatively to Cynthia, a “docta puella” or “learned girl,” and Propertius’s perpetual muse. So somewhere over the course of its initial leap into English, gay enjoyed a rise in reputation — a fine beginning for a word that would spend the rest of its life undergoing a roller coaster ride of semantic shifts.
“Gay” first hit paper in 1325, in a transcription of a Middle English song called “Blow, Northerne Wynd.” When I started reading it, I thought it was about how the narrator would brave the northern wind to get to his beloved, who is described as semly and menskful and lossom (“seemly,” “worshipful,” and “lovely,” if you prefer boring new English words). But in the end, he’s actually asking the wind to blow his suetyng (“sweetheart”) to him, which honestly sounds kind of mean and lazy. Dave Wilton found the relevant stanza:
graciouse, stout, ant gay
gentil, iolyf so þe iay
worhliche when heo wakeþ.
Maiden murgest of mouþ;
bi est, bi west, by norþ ant souþ,
þer nis fiele ne crouþ
þat such murþes makeþ.
Blow northerne wynd!
Send thou me my suetyng!
Blow northerne wynd! blow, blow, blow!”
While this meaning became more prevalent, another now-familiar one snuck up alongside it. Next time we’ll talk about when gay started meaning what it does now — and take another few dips up and down the semantic roller coaster.
- More Than Words: Gay Pt. 1 — We’re Going Gay, Autostraddle, 13 January 2014, by CARA https://www.autostraddle.com/more-than-words-gay-pt-1-were-going-gay-215984/