The etymology of the term ‘gay’ is very interesting. Originating in the late fourteenth century, it initially denoted happiness and frivolity. By the seventeenth century, however, it had adopted negative connotations with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it as ‘addicted to social pleasures and dissipations… Of loose and immoral life’, and by 1890 it had become interlinked with female prostitution. The year 1935, though, saw it edging somewhat closer to its contemporary meaning with ‘geycat’ referring to young male homosexuals.
Today, ‘gay’ is defined as: ‘(of a person, especially a man) homosexual.’ And yet it is quickly becoming a pejorative term(predominantly amongst young people) to replace ‘rubbish.’ Thus, ‘gay’ no longer exclusively relates to sexuality; it is also an insult.
So how long will it be before this derogatory definition appears in our dictionaries? And, more importantly, should it?
Whilst ‘gay’ is rapidly adopting negative connotations, no other word has as yet offered to assume the definition of ‘homosexual.’ There was a push recently, notably involving human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, for ‘queer’ to do just that, but this is generally accepted as having a much broader meaning, encompassing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people alike. Moreover, the reclamation is only regarded as appropriate for exclusive use within the LGBT community due to its harmful past. So, for now, we have a homonym (excuse the terrible terrible pun.)
We can presume that the two definitions once went hand in hand, with homophobia transforming the once-neutral term into an insult. Today however, the majority of young people argue that ‘gay’, as an insult, has no sexual connotations whatsoever, suggesting that its use is not consciously homophobic. Nevertheless, many people argue that this negative evolution shouldn’t be allowed as it is possible that the lexical ambiguity may still introduce or reinforce homophobia in children. After all, a seven-year old child who has been calling broccoli ‘gay’ since he could speak cannot then be expected to accept his uncles’ civil partnership without question. There may even be some transference of meaning, either consciously (with the rationale that the two definitions must be interlinked as in many other cases, for example ‘nurse’, in either sense, refers to the act of caring) or subconsciously (it may be difficult to shake off the word’s negative associations.)
The alternative view is that lexical evolution is vital to the progression of language; it shouldn’t be interrupted.
It would be interesting to conduct an experiment to ascertain the relationship between the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ and homophobia. I would hypothesise a positive correlation but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with the latter argument: I am not homophobic and, as far as I know, it is not a low exposure to the derogatory version of ‘gay’ in childhood which has caused this. Rather, I consciously choose to avoid the word ‘gay’, in the negative sense, for I am aware it can cause offence. Therefore, any such experiment would need to establish the causal mechanism between the two variables before coming to a conclusion as to whether or not we should allow the term ‘gay’ to adopt a second, and negative, meaning.