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Semantic Change Of The Word Gay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2884 words Published: 28th Sep 2017

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Language investigation into the ongoing semantic change of the word gay


The meaning of the word “gay” has changed over time with its current; most commonly accepted use being to describe someone’s sexual orientation. This wasn’t always the case and at the moment is already changing to define something as being “rubbish or “unimpressive”. Such a big change as of this has led to me being interested into investigating the word and how over time specifically it has changed. The word gay also interests me language wise because of its importance in referring to someone’s sexuality, it provides a personal connection to some people’s lives as it describes them and who they are, so however the definition changes so will the effect to anyone who is gay. To investigate the semantic change I wanted to get the widest range of results for my investigation on the word gay. I went about choosing a wide range of people to give me the greatest range of views and opinions on the word and its definitions. To get this I asked elderly people who come from a generation where the word was completely different. I also asked people such as my parents who have come from another different generation and then finally today’s generation. I would aim to find a large difference between definitions between the elderly who would have grown up around the 1960s and any teenager I ask today who is currently in a completely different generation.


Data collection:

Going about my Investigation I decided the best way to get the most and best results was to produce a number of definitions and let the people who fill out the questionnaire pick one or two. I then would produce some follow up questions around the word ‘gay’ in a questionnaire style layout. I decided that a questionnaire style layout would best suit this investigation because it would be familiar with all the ages I am planning to ask to fill. Anything to complicated could potentially confuse an older person so the results wouldn’t be as reliable. For the first most important question I decided on using the four definitions used by the British Oxford Dictionary and found that gay has four meanings:

(A) ‘light-hearted and carefree’

(B) ‘brightly coloured, showy’

(C) ‘homosexual, especially a man’

(D) ‘foolish, stupid or unimpressive’

Giving each of these definitions a letter I would ask the people I was giving my questionnaire to, to choose the letter they thought gay meant. I’d do this in the aim of testing one of the hypothesis that only older people will use gay with the first and second meanings, and only younger people will use gay with the fourth and fifth, most recent meanings. The earliest meaning is letter (B). Dictionaries usually give letter (D) as the most recent meaning.


First Analysis

As I expected the results from my questionnaires matched my hypothesis, that the older generation would answer giving the definition of the word gay as light-hearted or colourful where as the generation of today (15-21) defining it as something being rubbish or a homosexual man. Even with this result that the homosexual man definition is still in common use, more 15-21 year olds answered that it meant something being rubbish rather than a homosexual man. The new definition is starting to over shadow the older one. Surprisingly in my results some even went to say they used the word gay not even thinking about the older definition of a homosexual man. Therefore showing the semantic change of the word has changed so greatly that it’s other definitions are starting to be forgotten about and people are using the new definition almost unconsciously as this new definition becomes more common. Though my hypothesis was correct there were some abnormalities with two elderly people who filled in my questionnaire saying they had picked up on the change of the word gay through their grandchildren and had stopped using it because of the possibilities that the word could offend someone. I also found that the elderly people who were grandparents that had completed my questionnaire talked about experiences where they had use the word to describe something and had been laughed at because of the different meanings that the Grandparents and Grandkids shared. When being asked if they commonly used the word gay, the younger generation used it extremely more with it almost being a day to day phase. The older generation were not the same with all but one of the people I asked not using it at all.

Semantic Change

Through back up questions I learnt that such semantic change was becoming more popular through the school; people see that if homosexuality has become more accepted into today’s society they have no need to put a label on homosexuality. Therefore the word gay is losing its original meaning and connection to the word homosexuality. School also plays another part in this because it is teenagers (school pupils) who have changed the meaning of the word gay, it was first seen as an insult. But the word has been so overused that it has lost its original meaning. In the majority of schools where pupils aged 15-18 and possibly even younger call each other gay it was here that the word gay was popularised with students first using it as an insult. Being gay was seen as being bad, so it picked up this derogative term but as time processed and the semantic change also, it transformed into having an overall meaning that something is stupid. An example of this would be that in my questionnaire I was given “school” as something which is gay. If we used the definition of a homosexual man this would make no sense but because of the semantic change this definition has completely changed meaning anything this person didn’t like could be gay.

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It is not just in school that the word gay had been used. Radio and television shows although rarely are using the word gay to define something which is lame or rubbish. One example is Chris Moyles, a former DJ on BBC Radio 1, he received complaints from listeners after he used the word gay to describe a ringtone that he didn‘t like. The BBC released a statement after the incident saying that the word gay may now mean rubbish.â€- The BBC said that the DJ was just keeping up with developments in English usage. Chris Moyles show was one the most popular at the time, his and the BBC statement about the incident would have given many people a new way to define the word gay and the fact a DJ such as Chris Moyles could use it in this way would have led to many people using it also

While finding out that gay meant something as being stupid through the eyes of 15-18 year olds, I asked these people whether or not they saw gay meaning this because of the fact that being gay has been seen as a bad thing for many years and is only now being understood and more regularly accepted. I wanted to see if at the beginning of ‘gay’ starting to change semantically, it took on a negative connotation since many opposed homosexuality especially in schools and whether or not this had an effect on the semantic change, almost trying to understand that if being gay was never seen as being bad would the word gay had even changed semantically at all? In conclusion into this secondary research I found that many people in the 15-18 year old category were honest and admitted that at the start the semantic change could have been put down to the fact it carried a derogatory meaning. But now is seen more as ‘play ground speak’ and the increase with this new meaning is led by the youth culture with many 15-18 year olds using the word because others do and may not even have a bad view on gay people.

This semantic change In which I questioned was also being devolved through media and social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook where some of the 15-18 year olds would commonly use the word gay to describe something being stupid, as with schools people copy what everyone else does and this is maximised with the huge number of young people who have social networking sites. Along with this my research found that films such as ‘The Hangover’ where the term gay is used as a joke by an actor. In this film it is used as an insult, this could promote the semantic change. As that film was hugely popular a lot of people saw the scene and saw the new definition in which this word was used. The scene and the words the actor used in this joke have been copied many times and just show how films have an effect on semantic change because of the huge influential value on society.

Patterns in the Language

The word gay like all words are not set elements of language and are changing all the time. The word gay has been put as starting from the 14th century, when the definition was “stately and beautiful splendid and showily dressed. Through the late 14thcentury, it changed to define “full of joy, merry, light-hearted, carefree” this meaning was one of the definitions I gave in my questionnaire and the one I found was mostly used by the older people who answered my questionnaire. During the 19th century the word gay came to describe a woman who was a prostitute or a man who slept with prostitutes. This definition is obviously not used at all today and shows how one word can change so much based whether or not people use it. In the 1920’s the first use of it for referring to a man who slept with another man came about and this use has stuck till today. Although the definition started then, it was not used commonly until the 1980’s when this definition over shadowed all others. Until 2006, the word gay was still defined as a homosexual male until the definition changed meaning something is stupid. As with my research, the new definition describes having nothing to do with the previous definition and perhaps no offence is intended when using it to describe something as rubbish. This trait in changing words is also seen in the word “sick” which is changing from defining as being ill to something being cool. These words that are changing are most commonly used by the youth culture, this shows the great power that the younger generations have over the English language and what a word means. It seems to be very rare that an older generation define what a word is defined as.

Alongside my research I read into Emily Jelsomeno’s “Bitch,Nigger and Gay: Exclusive Language? The semantic shift of Pejorative Words and Reclamation” and this gave me the view that the pattern in which the word ‘gay’ changes grammatical category and is used seems to go from “positive to negative” and is now currently negative. With its newest meaning, something being stupid, it gives me the idea that this is a negative. With being able to see this shift, it enables me to make the assumption that there are at least three kinds of semantic change ‘gay’ has gone through. These being degeneration, elevation and taboo. With the degeneration I refer to gay becoming a word to describe something as being stupid, the most recent definition. It means gay is known as being negative. With elevation I refer to the improvement of the meaning. This improvement came from it meaning ‘men who had sex with other men’ to ‘homosexual males’. The second meaning is more favourable because it removes the element of sex from the definition. Sex between two males for some people is wrong and looked down upon strongly, whether it is for religious reasons or personal views. Removing the sex from the definition evaluates the word gay because it makes it more acceptable in some people’s eyes. It makes being homosexual not necessarily about having sex with someone of the same gender, but someone who is different from the norms of what being a male is. Lastly with the word gay I’d refer it to being a taboo for the term ‘homosexual male’ as the word ‘homosexual’ can still be considered a offensive term when referring to a gay man.

Changes in Grammatical category

Using my research and some background reading, I can come to the conclusion that gay has changed in grammatical categories. The first definition of the word “stately and beautiful splendid and showily dressed” would define gay as an adjective. During the 19th century, it shifted categories and became a noun; “a women who was a prostitute” and then acted at the same time as a verb. The phrase gay meant “to have sex”. Up to the 21st century gay was both an adjective (e.g. gay marriage) and a noun (i.e. gay being connected to being a homosexual). The most recent and latest category change makes gay an adjective once again by using it to insult something or someone, an example of this most recent category change from my investigation would be someone saying “you’re gay”.


Finishing up my investigation and concluding it I can see a quite clear semantic change of the word gay which answers my initial investigation question. Though I set out almost knowing what the answer was going to be, I was still surprised along the way with some of the information I gained from my investigation. I was not expecting the amount to which people use the word gay daily and how common it now is. Through my investigation I was pleasantly surprised how most (if not all the people I asked) actually used the word gay unconsciously with no thought in mind of offending anyone who is actually homosexual. With my evidence from the investigation I can make the conclusion that the amount that the word ‘gay’ is actually used has helped steer it away from being used to cause offence and this is obviously a positive sign. The only thing I would change about my investigation is that I would have given more open questions. This would mean the questionnaire would get into more depth about the people who were filling it in opinions, giving me more detailed results. Apart from that I feel my investigation was a success.  

By taking part in this questionnaire you agree to this information being used for research purposes

(Please tick if you agree)

Please fill in this questionnaire:

How old are you?

15-24 24-34 34-4444-54 54+

What does the word Gay mean to you?

(A) ‘light-hearted and carefree’

(B) ‘brightly coloured, showy’

(C) ‘homosexual, especially a man’

(D) ‘foolish, stupid or unimpressive

How would use ‘Gay’ in a sentence?

Any other comments?

Thank you for taking part

Thank you for taking part


http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/words-literally-changed-meaning-through-2173079 – 17/04/2014

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100246515/gay-now-means-rubbish-get-over-it/ – 17/04/2014



Bitch, Nigger and Gay: Exclusive language? The semantic shift of pejorative words and reclamation -20/01/2014

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7289390.stm -21/01/2014


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