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Cary Grant and the Emergence of gay 'homosexual' Ronald R. Butters This paper explores the evolving colloquial meanings of the term gay (and the phrases go gay and get gay) in several 20th-century senses but most particularly the current dominant sense 'homosexual'. The sociolinguistic emergence of this sense in the United States in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and its relationship to other slang senses of the term, are highly complex — especially so because our sensibilities have been profoundly affected by the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual -rights movements of the 1970s and beyond. Dictionary makers, however, are forced to simplify the sociolinguistic record, and the general public — and even cultural historians — are wont to do so as well. Instances of gay before World War II in cultural contexts that seem to suggest homosexual activity have generally been misconstrued from a later 20th-century perspective to be instances in which gay actually means 'homosexual', even though that meaning in all likelihood was not the intent of those who wrote or spoke the word. I am especially interested here in the commonplace assumption, voiced for example by the film critic Vito Russo in 1981, that gay 'homosexual' occurs as a Cary Grant ad lib in Howard Hawks's 1938 comic film, Bringing Up Baby. Unpacking the potential significance of Grant's infamous line ("I've just gone gay all of a sudden!") as well as other early putative citations of gay 'homosexual' requires extensive sociolinguistic examination . Let me begin by summarizing the major etymological strands that established scholarship suggests might be the source of gay 'homosexual '. 1. The adjective gay was used in England in the early 20th century to describe prostitutes, and the meaning of the term ap- Cary Grant and the Emergence of gay 'homosexual'189 pears to have been extended sometimes to male homosexual prostitutes and male homosexuals (see, e.g., the Random House Historical Dictionary ofAmerican Slang [HDAS], s.v. gay adj. Ia). 2.It is well-documented that the term gaycat was applied in early 20th-century America to juvenile male hobos, some of whom would have been exploited as the sexual partners of older male hobos (see, e.g., the OED, s.v. gay cat ; HDAS, s.v. gay adj. Ib). 3.The primary early 20th-century meaning of gay was 'happy', with important semantic extensions of meaning as 'carefree, colorful, energetically frivolous, hedonistic'.1 Thus a gay party in this extended third sense was a party that was happy, colorful, energetically frivolous, and/or hedonistic — just the sort of party at which stereotypical male homosexuals might be found, since gay men were/are stereotypically, among other things, party animals who were/are carefree, colorful, energetically frivolous, and hedonistic. So, the extension of gay to mean 'male homosexual' may well have been largely little more than a kind of metonymy based on stereotypes: homosexuals are gay; therefore, gay means 'homosexual '. Whether or not gay 'homosexual' came from one, two, or three of these senses is in fact not clear. Sociolinguistically, source 3 above is the most plausible, but the others were lurking in the background and may have been contributing factors. Just when the new meaning emerged is likewise problematical. The HDAS cites two highly ambigu1An example of this third sense is found in the American movie The Great Lie (1941). Mary Astor, playing a "bad" girl (in a role for which she won an Academy Award), describes George Brent (her lover) as "very gay." Brent ends up marrying Bette Davis, the "good" girl, instead of Astor, for whom the attraction was basically their mutual, decadent, alcoholic, carnal lust. Gay here clearly means 'happy, colorful, energetically frivolous, hedonistic'; had the movie been made forty years later, Mary Astor might well have said "very fun" rather than "very gay." If the authors of the script and the actress who spoke the line had any fear of connoting 'homosexual' for this usage of gay in The Great Lie, the word would not have been used, because the meaning would have been throughly inappropriate to describe the sensual heterosexual character portrayed by George Brent. Obviously, even for the decadents of Hollywood, gay didn't mean 'homosexual' in 1940...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 188-204
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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