Word Origin & History
1178, "full of joy or mirth," from O.Fr. gai "gay, merry" (12c.); cf. O.Sp. gayo, Port. gaio, It. gajo. Ultimate origin disputed; perhaps from Frank. *gahi (cf. O.H.G. wahi "pretty"), though not all etymologists accept this. Meaning "brilliant, showy" is from c.1300. OED gives 1951 as earliest date for
slang meaning "homosexual" (adj.), but this is certainly too late; gey cat "homosexual boy" is attested in N. Erskine's 1933 dictionary of "Underworld & Prison Slang;" the term gey cat (gey is a Scot. variant of gay) was used as far back as 1893 in Amer.Eng. for "young hobo," one who is new on the road and usually in the company of an older tramp, with catamite connotations. But Josiah Flynt ["Tramping With Tramps," 1905] defines gay cat as, "An amateur tramp who works when his begging courage fails him." Gey cats also were said to be tramps who offered sexual services to women. The "Dictionary of American Slang" reports that gay (adj.) was used by homosexuals, among themselves, in this sense since at least 1920. Rawson ["Wicked Words"] notes a male prostitute using gay in reference to male homosexuals (but also to female prostitutes) in London's notorious Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889. Ayto ["20th Century Words"] calls attention to the ambiguous use of the word in the 1868 song "The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store," by U.S. female impersonator Will S. Hays. The word gay in the 1890s had an overall tinge of promiscuity -- a gay house was a brothel. The suggestion of immorality in the word can be traced back to 1637. Gay as a noun meaning "a (usually male) homosexual" is attested from 1971.