Query: Gay Self-Appellations in 20s, 30s? (Modified by Grant Barrett)

Jonathon Green slang at ABECEDARY.NET
Tue Feb 24 17:18:00 UTC 2004

In re gay-/gey-cat: There are various defs.

1. late 19C–1950s a young or inexperienced tramp.

2. late 19C–1950s a hobo who accepts occasional or seasonal work.

3. 1900s-40s (US Und.) the junior member of a criminal gang, employed to
run errands or spy out possible crimes

4. 1930s a tramp’s younger, homosexual companion.

The locus classic us is perhaps:

1921 P. & T. Casey _The Gay-cat_ 17: A gay-cat is the scorn of hoboes. He
is a fake hobo. He lacks altogether the qualities of a blown-in-the-glass
stiff. He will ‘peach’ on his mates. He will turn against a friend when
that friend is down to tomato cans. Anything and everything mean and
despicable is worthy of a gay-cat. To call a man that is to brand him with
the most loathed name a hobo knows. It is the quintessence of contempt.

[The 'gay-cat' narrator of the Caseys' book is not, ostensibly homosexual;
that said, his relations are uniquely with older hobo males; could there
have been a degree of self-censorship on behalf of the author? Certainly
the contempt in which the 'gay-cat' is held might be seen as extending
further than one who is merely  a less experienced tramp.]

The point about gay, surely, is that it is euphemistic. I don't know
whether this interwar term crossed the Atlantic, but in the UK there was
also 'so' ('Is he "so"?'); the US had the parallel 'that way'. Thus 'gay'
passed from Chaucer's (and latterly Shakespeare's) use, meaning generally
dissipated, thence to promiscuous/immoral, of a woman, and thence, since
one was attempting to describe what were seen, stereotypically, as both
promiscuous and effeminate males, homosexuals. If the term was adopted by
gay men, then it simply prefigures the similar positive appropriation of
verbal opprobria, such as 'nigger' and 'queer' by the respective black and
homosexual communities. I would also note Bruce Rodgers' cite of 16C
French _gaie_, a homosexual man, although I have yet to confirm this. As
for gay-/gey cat def. 4, my feeling is that it has been influenced by the
homosexual ue of gay, but that it's 'young or inxperienced' definition
came first. But, as noted, one can never under-estimate the mis-direction
of self-censorship.

Jonathon Green

More information about the Ads-l mailing list