Gay & Queer

Joanne M. Despres jdespres at MAIL.M-W.COM
Wed Aug 25 09:08:17 UTC 1999

Donald Webster Cory offers the following account of the semantic
genesis of GAY in his book The Homosexual in America (1951), pp.

How, when, and where this word originated, I am unable to say.  I
have been told by experts that it came from the French, and that in
France as early as the sixteenth century the homosexual was called
"gaie."  Significantly enough, the feminine form was used to describe
the male.  The word made its way to England and America, and was used
in print in some of the more pornographic literature soon after the
First World War.  Psychoanalyists have infomred me that their
homosexual patients were callng themselves "gay" in the
nineteen-twenties, and certainly by the nineteen-thirties it was the
most common word in use among homosexuals themselves.  It was not
until after Pearl Harbor that it became a magic by-word in
practically every corner of the United States where homosexual might
gather, and in the decade following America's entry into the Second
World War I find [the word to have been in use among not only]
magazine writers and gossip columnists, but even radio announcers.

I've checked the French dictionaries we have on hand (including
Littre, Godefroi, and Tresor de la langue francaise) and
(unsurprisingly) haven't found a trace of a "homosexual" sense of
gai/e.  Maybe one of us needs to root around in the gay/lesbian
archives at the NYPL or in the papers of some early twentieth-century
psychoanalysts for early evidence of the word?

Joanne Despres

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