"gay old time" and gender

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Sat Jun 17 14:20:12 UTC 2000


If you look closely at Lighter and other slang dictionaries, you will see
that the earliest American slang usages for GAY meant 'impudent'; there is a
short story by Sherwood Anderson called "I'm a Fool"--a first-person story
narrated by a working-class young man--that uses the term in that way.
Although GAY in "gay old time" doesn't mean 'impudent', and though Anderson's
story comes some 60 years after yours, the repeated use of the term by the
vulgar young man suggests to me that this was in itself a rather "low" usage.

Aside from that, I know of no other connection between GAY as used in America
in a phrase such as "gay old time" that would suggest the phrase (or the
word) were considered vulgar. Was Cornielia Otis Skinner the author of OUR
HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY? That is an association with non-working-class
females of the earlier 20th century.

In short, I know of no source that makes such a distinction as you found.
Just brain-storming, I suppose it might be possible to find a 19th century
etiquette book that lists vulgar phrases; I doubt that dictionaries of the
period would be much help. You may just have found some new evidence for the
historical usage of the term GAY--perhaps worth a brief Miscellany piece in
AMERICAN SPEECH or COMMENTES ON ETYMOLOGY. Of course, it is possible that the
young man who challenged the expression had some sort of prescriptivist
idiosuncracyk with respect to the phrase in question.

In a message dated 6/16/2000 6:27:36 PM, feste at KEYSTONENET.COM writes:

<< 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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