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Why "Gay"?

Some people object to the word "gay" to describe homosexual people. For some, it's purely a matter of language: They point out -- perhaps correctly -- that there's no other word in English that means "happy and carefree" as precisely as "gay" used to.

For others, though, the objection may arise from less lofty motives: For example, some anti-gay or homophobic groups insist on using hurtful slurs such as "fag" rather than "gay."

Both groups might be surprised to learn that "gay" as a term for homosexual has been with us longer than the gay rights movement that began in the 1960s.

The word "gay," meaning "happy and carefree," originally came to English from the old French gai, which John Ayto in his "Dictionary of Word Origins" calls "an adjective of uncertain origin connected by some with old high German gahi (sudden, impulsive)."

The origins of "gay" to mean "homosexual," however, are less clear.

Some have traced the word to the Gaiety Theaters of Dublin and the Isle of Man, or to young men who played the part of women in Shakespearean times and who were supposedly referred to as "the gays." Others have attempted to explain the term as an acronym for "Good As You."

Most authorities agree, however, that "gay" in the sense of "homosexual" arose in the early 20th Century from a hobo slang term, "gay cat."

It was in that sense that novelist Jack London used the phrase in "The Road."

"As chance would have it, this man was not a genuine hobo," London wrote. "He bore none of the ear-marks of the professional ‘stiff.’ Had he approached the rest of us, while waiting at a water-tank for a freight, we should have unhesitatingly classified him as a ‘gay-cat.’ Gay-cat is the synonym for tenderfoot in Hobo Land."

William Pinkerton, founder of the detective agency that bears his name, in the early 1900s defined "gay cat" as "one who cases towns and banks for future jobs." The "gay cat" was seen as half of a male-male partnership, serving as an apprentice to an older, more experienced tramp.

By the 1930s, however, the word was being used in its current sense. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the 1935 "Underworld & Prison Slang" by N. Ersine as defining "geycat" as a homosexual boy.

The history of the word "lesbian" is much more clear. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it comes from "the reputed homosexual band associated with Sappho of Lesbos."

Sappho, a poet, was born ca. 615 B.C. on the Aegean island of Lesbos.