Languages and change
Spoken languages are always shifting. New words spring up with new things or concepts. They fall in disuse with the ending of social customs, with the disappearance of ways of life and objects that are attached to them. Or else, they stay, but with altered meanings.
In some cases, words did a complete about-face, and now mean the exact opposite of what they originally meant. Those are called contronyms – or Janus-words, after the Roman god who had two faces looking in opposite directions. As if that were not crazy enough, sometimes the Janus-word even retains both meanings.
An example is to overlook, which can mean to oversee as well as to ignore (with many other intermediary meanings).
In other cases, a word becomes something else entirely. It first gains a new meaning by association, and slowly the original meaning becomes dated and falls in disuse. It is of one those words that this post is about.
Love at first reading
Does it happen to you sometimes to encounter a word that seems to be the thing it names, especially when you meet it for the first time? Don’t you feel the deep redness in crimson, and the cold hardness in steely?
So it was for me that afternoon, fifteen years ago, as I was reading the Longman Easy Readers version of R. L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
I stopped at the cottage, and asked my way. A man told me Cramond was west of the city. I went on and on. I saw some soldiers marching along a main road. I loved their red coats and the gay music of the band.
The gay music of the band.
For a moment, I was no longer here. I was there. I could hear the fifes and drums, see the red coats flapping in the wind, and feel the joy of the whole scene. One word had worked this magic.
I fell in love with gay.
A quick history
The Webster’s New Unabridged Dictionary (1983 edition) lists its meanings as:
- joyous and lively; merry; happy; light-hearted.
- bright; brilliant; as, gay colors.
- given to social life and pleasures; as, a gay life.
- wanton; licentious; as, a gay dog.
Later I learned about its origin. According to the Chambers Dictionary of English Words, it comes from the Old French gai, which meant merry. The word probably began to be used in English about 1300, with the meaning of splendid, beautiful. It reverted to the original Old French meaning of merry, light-hearted, carefree, probably about 1380.
Beyond the Old French, the origins of gay are unclear; the same dictionary says perhaps it comes from Frankish, and was related to the Old High German gahi, impetuous.
I am no etymologist at all, but I wonder whether instead of Old High German, there is not some relation to the Latin gaudium, joy. Its Indo-European root ga- means to rejoice. In the instinctual level, it would certainly make sense.
The word felt to me, in that afternoon of my early youth, now so distant, as if it were gaiety itself.
A word in hiding
Then, some time later, I found out I could not use it with that meaning.
Or rather, I could, but few would understand it. The online Oxford Dictionary lists it as meaning homosexual. Light-hearted, carefree, brightly colored – those are all dated. This present-day meaning, which is actually a slang from the 1950s, has driven out the original one. It has nothing to do with what gay has meant for six-hundred years, but it usurped the entire word.
Learning that was like learning that a dear friend must live forever in hiding, while someone else uses his name. It hurt. It hurts still.
I have told friends about the true meaning of gay — and heard them laugh, amused. The modern meaning is so ingrained in their consciousness that they just cannot feel any other meaning in the word. The joy of it is lost on them.
It is also sad that the Portuguese version of the word, gaio(a), has not been used for a long time. Not through usurpation, but through forgetfulness. For some reason I as yet ignore, it simply fell in disuse.
On the other hand, the French gai is still used. And in English, we still meet gay in old songs, in texts from up to the 1950s, in poems.
If indeed some words are what they name, I am sure gay is one of them. In a sense, it does not really matter that it was deprived of its position, that it lives in obscurity. It still is what it is.
And if we make an effort to remember that, in our ears gay can still laugh on in its true meaning, as merry as the military fifes, as bright as the red coats, as gay as joy itself.
What about you? Did you know the original meaning of ‘gay’? Is there a word that you feel is what it names? Is there a word that you love but is so dated you can’t use it? Do share your thoughts with us!
Photo: Stella Becker