A gay old time: ‘stealing’ the word gay

gay old time

‘A gay old time’ once meant either a light-hearted moment or a lewd adventure, depending on the circumstance. Adults used the word as code, enabling discussion of ‘distasteful’ subjects in the presence of innocents. Old newspaper clippings demonstrate the general public understood both meanings despite the regular bleatings that gays ‘stole’ a beautiful word. 

Every so often some troglodyte raises its hoary head and howls to the wind over homosexuals appropriating the word gay.

With only half a billion plus words in the English language, they apparently feel the loss of that particular one quite keenly.

No longer able to describe themselves as ‘feeling gay’, they are forced to forgo happiness. Indeed, the sorry victims of this homosexual appropriation suffer gayless… um,  joyless lives.

However, for hundreds of years, the word worked double duty. To the innocent, it meant carefree, colourful and fun.

They don’t look gay in any sense of the word! Melbourne Argus 2 June 1953.

To the more worldly, it meant lewd — associated with sex work, either male or female. Many words in English carry more than one meaning. Ask any Australian who ever rooted for a football team. 😳

gay old time
Queenslander 16 July 1936. I’ll just leave this here with no further comment. Gay is not the only word with more than one meaning.

The double meaning was not a closely guarded secret. Newspapers regularly referred to brothels as ‘gay houses’.

In 1923, the Brisbane Truth reported on the goings-on at Trilby Turner’s ‘gay house’ in South Brisbane, otherwise known as a ‘house of ill-fame’.

A gay old time at a ‘gay house’

Trilby Turner is a great drag name. But I’ll bet it’s not the name Trilby’s mum gave her. A trilby was a gentleman’s hat. Of course, the ability to turn a gentleman’s head was an important attribute for the mistress of a gay house in 1923.

gay old time
Brisbane Truth 15 July 1923

A Gay Husband

Then, there’s the sorry tale of Sydney’s John Ramsay whose wife became suspicious when he powdered his neck and shoulders and drenched himself in perfume before leaving the house to go surfing in 1922. The Australasian newspaper described John as A Gay Husband.

But he was merely metrosexual. Mrs Ramsay told the court she stalked her husband to Bronte Beach and caught him with another woman. Not just any woman. A fat woman. A fat French woman. Mrs Ramsay’s spouse was surfing hand in hand with a fat Frenchwoman.

Whaa-at the faa-ark! How do you do that? Surf hand in hand?

Even stranger, John Ramsay then attempted to convince Justice Gordon that the woman was merely giving him French lessons. While surfing hand in hand? Oui. Va te faire foutre!

gay old time
Australasian 1 April 1922

Words change over time and the word ‘gay’ changed.

In the 20th century, the lewder meaning came to describe homosexuals. They embraced it. At the same time, the more innocent meaning went out of fashion along with words like ‘piffle’ and ‘fiddle-faddle’ and ‘rantallion’.

But some folk resist semantic evolution at every turn, determined that trolls belong under bridges, a web should teem with spiders, and only pneumonia and similar contagions should go viral.

Take, for example, the American Family Association and their 2008 refusal to accept the modern use of ‘gay’. The association employed a word filter on their OneNewsNow website to ensure anyone or anything ‘gay’ became ‘homosexual’.

That year, athlete Tyson Gay qualified for the Olympics.

“Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue,” reported OneNewsNow, “sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has… ‘It means a lot to me’, the 25-year-old Homosexual said. ‘I’m glad my body could do it because now I know I have it in me’.”

Now that’s just too gay for words!

Also: Bob Katter Fact Check: never heard of Gays before 50?

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