"gay" in "Bringing Up Baby"

Ronald Butters ronbutters at AOL.COM
Thu Aug 26 18:56:31 UTC 2010

Yes, I have a whole article on this in DICTIONARIES that I will be happy to send to anyone who wants an offprint , but in brief,, I think the OED should probably remove the entire cite, not just the brackets:

1. The remark was an ad lib, made up by Grant himself.
2. It is clear from Legman and others that GAY =' homosexual' was at best only an underworld term for 'homosexual'  in the 1930s. On the other hand, it was a well-known slang term for 'obstreperous', and was also associated very much in the public mind with follies in which women danced in skimpy garments.
3. Thus the audience in the late 1930s would certainly not have known GAY = 'homosexual' (except maybe some gay people themselves, who at the time preferred QUEER or THAT WAY as terms of self-reference.
4. Thus the primary meaning of "just gone gay all of a sudden" would not have been 'homosexual'--you can't have a meaning if nobody knows it.,
5. Grant might have known the term, being a deeply closeted homosexual himself. so maybe he was making an arch pun. (The use of the term was almost certainly an ad lib, made by Grant himself). I'm not sure what other lexicographers think, but it seems to me that the OED is right in not giving "certain" status to a meaning when at best it represents the buried half of a recondite pun.
6. There are, however, good reasons for arguing that Grant was not making a pun that would have been understood only by a few queers. Precisely BECAUSE Grant was a deeply closeted homosexual, a remark making use of a reference to homosexuality would have been psychologically difficult and perhaps also professionally dangerous. True, 25 years later Rock Hudson played a straight man pretending to be a gay man so that women would trust him, but the climate for gays in the 1930s was arguably even worse than in the McCarthy era. Grant, so far as I know, never even gave a hint that homosexuality existed in any of his roles. The closest he came to it was in his public acknowledgment that he lived with Randolph Scott (who was, we now know, apparently a lover). But that was presented in the press as a home inhabited by two randy bachelors, who were busy porking girls and not each other.
7. It is perhaps also worth saying that any verbal reference to homosexuality in the late 1930s in American films would have immediately been cut out by the censors. Even if we assume that Grant was punning on GAY = 'homosexual', it was such a subtle pun that not even the homophobic director or the censors recognized it as such.
8. Finally, it is also questionable that, even if Grant meant GONE GAY to denote something other than 'turned obstreperous' and/or 'become a dancing girl', it is technically not the case that cross-dressing and 'homosexual' as we know it today (and as Grant knew it then) are the same thing. Maybe he was suggesting, 'I am a transvestite'.

On Aug 26, 2010, at 1:16 PM, Shapiro, Fred wrote:

> I think the square brackets here mean that the usage is uncertain.  To me it seems likely that David is referring to homosexuality, but others, such as Ron Butters, have argued against this.  Gary Simes has collected various pre-Legman citations from the 1920s and 1930s, but the OED seems to be conservative about accepting them.  Curiously, for decades the OED went with a highly questionable 1935 citation as their first use.
> Fred
> ________________________________________
> From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Joel S. Berson [Berson at ATT.NET]
> Sent: Thursday, August 26, 2010 1:09 PM
> Subject: "gay" in "Bringing Up Baby"
> Having just seen "Bringing Up Baby" again, I am surprised that the
> OED can continue to, in its June 2010 draft revision, bracket the
> following quotation as, presumably, "interpreted anachronistically".
> 1938 D. NICHOLS & H. WILDE Bringing up Baby (film script, final
> revision) 35 David..comes on..in negligee... Aunt: Why are you
> wearing these clothes?.. David: Because I just went gay, all of a sudden.
> If it is not taken as specifically referring to a person as a
> homosexual (sense 4.d.(a)), it seems at least to be "(of a ... way of
> life, etc.) of or relating to homosexuals" (sense 4.d(b).  (Unless
> this use is taken only as cross-dressing?)  And a few of the later,
> but still bracketed, quotations, seem also to fit 4.d(b).
> Joel
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