Appearance of the word ‘gay’ in books scanned by Google, 1625-2008
The word gay used to mean happy or carefree. Around the 19th century it began to lose that meaning and rapidly acquire a new one – homosexual.
I mention this because I’ve been stuff words into Google’s NGrams generator and this is the most striking turnaround I’ve ever seen. If you look through the text in a ton of books, you can watch the word gay literally change meaning.
Gay used to mean happy or carefree. It only began to have sexual connotations in the 1900s. From the graph below you can see that both the words ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ began being co-opted for new meanings around the same time.
The word straight also got a new meaning and began tracking the word gay (Google NGrams)
After the 1970s, gay had a rapid transition from an adjective to a noun. Put more interestingly, it went from describing a general state of happiness to defining a specific state of happiness – having sex with men. Shocking. As gay rights advance more and more, the word has become an identity.
So much of an identity, in fact, that the word is now being defended. It can be considered offensive to call something gay, meaning lame or uncool. I sometimes say ‘that’s gay’ myself, though I try to restrain myself.
Anyways, ah, this Google NGrams is a lot of fun. I’ve been plugging words in there all weekend.