How 'Gay' Lost Its 'Shtick' Over Time

When Good Words Go Bad, Our Guy Gets in a Tizzy

By Philologos

Published November 13, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.

(page 2 of 2)

Let’s consider what “gay” used to mean. My 1962 Roget’s International Thesaurus gives as its closest equivalents “spirited,” “sprightly,” “lively,” “merry,” “mirthful,” “animated,” “vivacious,” “zestful,” “zippy,” “exuberant,” “joyful,” “joyous,” “gleeful,” “jovial,” “jocund,” “jocular” and “laughter-loving.” Do any of these words mean what “gay” once did? Not really. Perhaps the two words that come closest are “merry” and “joyful.” Indeed, if we could join them together, taking the more casual, superficial feeling of merriness and the deeper, more profound feeling of joy, we might have a rough approximation of gaiety, one definition of which might be the light-hearted outward expression of a solemn inward sense of the rightness of things. Mere merriment can be frivolous; true gaiety, though often deceptive, is always serious and can sometimes even be sad. Nietzsche, who subtitled one of his last books “La Gaya Scienza” (the Italian phrase has been correctly translated into English as “The Gay Science”), had this to say:

“For the great majority [of men]… the intellect is a clumsy, gloomy, creaking machine. How burdensome they must find good thinking! ‘Where laughter is found, thinking does not amount to anything’: That is the prejudice of this serious beast. Well, then, let us prove that this is only a prejudice.”

“The laughter of good thinking”: That’s another definition of gaiety. There’s no end to the possibilities, which itself is a sign of how valuable a word “gay” once was. And with the loss of it, one has to ask: Does this also mean the end of gaiety as a human possibility? Can a culture that no longer has a word for something still have that something itself? If we can no longer say we’re gay, have we lost the ability to be gay?

Or is it rather the other way around, so that our growing inability to be gay is what made our contemporary society so willing to surrender the word for it? I have no idea. I only know that the elimination, within a decade or two, of the meaning of a word that had a special place in the English language for hundreds of years is less a case of lexical apostasy than one of lexical assassination.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com



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