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Fair and Wise

The hacks and hackettes of the newspaper business are generally a cheerful and lively bunch, very prone to convivial gatherings as the sun goes down – or sometimes even earlier. At one time there was a handy three-letter word which aptly described such jollifications and the attendant company.

To use it now would invite, at best, misunderstanding. At worst, a hostile and aggressive response. A queer turn of events, indeed.

Gay seems to have shed its old meaning and acquired a new one almost overnight, but as long ago as 1935 the OED Supplement recorded “gaycat” as prison slang for a homosexual boy.

In fact, the usage is considerably older still, with “gay” having acquired a new sexual meaning in early Victorian times when it was used to describe a person who was promiscuous or engaged in prostitution.

The Dictionary of Historical Slang cites several examples from around 1870 when “gay house” was a brothel, “gay girl” was a prostitute and “feeling gay” was the same as feeling amorous.

The first example of “gay” meaning homosexual dates to London in 1889 but only came to light in 1975 when the court documents relating to a celebrated Victorian scandal were made public.

The scandal involved a homosexual brothel patronised by some of the highest in the land, and a male prostitute witness described himself in police depositions as “gay.”

The word then appears to have crossed the Atlantic so that by 1955 it was recorded as a common American euphemism for homosexual. Since then, it has acquired world-wide acceptance as a noun and an adjective, although it seems a paradoxical epithet for such a sad grouping.

The result is the loss of an old and useful word for which there is no exact synonym. The gay bachelor of bygone days was a committed hetero, but is the Gay Gordons still a dance for partners of opposing sexes?

The child born on the Sabbath was reputedly “fair and wise and good and gay” but it’s no longer safe to use such expressions with gay abandon.

In this context, I cannot trace the source of the comment about The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s worth repeating: it made Gay (the author) rich and Rich (the producer) gay.

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