[Ads-l] Antedating of "Gay" (Homosexual, Applied to a Person)

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Mar 27 15:09:02 UTC 2022

gay (OED, 4.d.[a], 1937)

1934 Letter [Ernest Watson Burgess Papers, University of Chicago Library, File 98, Folder 11]

Gay People are generally people who live their own lives, speak their own thoughts and are in love with their own sex.

NOTE:  This letter is undated.  However, ​information from the University of Chicago Library and from David K. Johnson, a scholar who has worked with the Burgess Papers, makes it clear that the "Gay People" citation is securely datable as 1934.  A librarian at University of Chicago has pointed out to me that this letter's mention of "the Fair" is obviously a reference to the great Century of Progress International Exhibition that was open May 27, 1933 - Nov. 12, 1933 and May 26, 1934 - Oct. 31, 1934.  1933 is ruled out because the letter is responding to a 1934 personal advertisement (see communication from David K. Johnson, below).  The letter must have fallen within the May 26 - Oct. 31, 1934 period in light of the Exhibition reference and the letter's being in all likelihood close in time to the Spring 1934 personal ad.

Fred Shapiro

From: David Johnson <davidjohnson at usf.edu>
Sent: Sunday, February 13, 2022 7:58 PM
To: Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu>
Subject: Re: Earliest Citation for the Term "Gay"?


Thanks for your query.  The letter I cite in Kids of Fairytown, and which you provided a copy of, was definitely a response to Jimmy’s personal ad placed in a national magazine in 1934. Given that I wrote the ad was placed in 1934 and we have another letter from May 1934 that was also a response to the ad, I’m pretty confident that 1934 is the correct date for all such correspondence, including the undated Baltimore letter in question, and that Sprague must be wrong.

Sprague’s characterization of the letter as a “love letter” is also wrong—since these guys had not met in person.  Although Sprague was a respected historian, my memory is that he was a public historian, without an academic affiliation and without training as an academic historian.

I suppose to be absolutely certain we’d need access to the entire folder of letters—Box 98, folder 11 of the Burgess papers—which I do not have. But I have no evidence to corroborate the idea that it’s from 1933 and lots of evidence to suggest it was 1934.

Hope that helps.



David K. Johnson


Department of History

University of South Florida

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list