"gay old time" and gender

Pat Pflieger feste at KEYSTONENET.COM
Fri Jun 16 23:16:15 UTC 2000

I'm annotating some 19th-century letters and have come upon an etymology
problem I hope someone can help me solve.

Many of the letter-writers were American teenagers, subscribers to a
magazine which printed their letters.  In 1861, a girl living in Albany,
New York, wrote about what "a gay old time" she and her friends had,
skating on the local pond.  This was immediately challenged by a boy, who
accused her of being a male subscriber writing under a female pseudonym.
(It's a long story.  Trust me.)  His evidence was the phrase "gay old
time":  she had, he pointed out, "[let] fall an expression which no
cultivated and traveled young lady, in fact, no woman at all, would ever
use, but one common in the mouths of boys and young men--'a gay old time.'"

I haven't been able to track the history of the phrase "gay old time", let
alone its gender-specific uses.  I've checked the OED, Mathews' _Dictionary
of Americanisms_, Cassidy's _Dictionary of American English_, & Lighter's
_Dictionary of American Slang_.  I've also run it through Internet search
engines, but you can imagine the results.

Can anyone point me toward a source that might help me discuss the phrase?

Pat Pflieger
feste at keystonenet.com

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