words: Gay

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The Independent Online
John Baker, a former Bishop of Salisbury, has been speaking up for the gay clergy. I didn't hear his lecture, but so far as I could gather from the reports he never called them gay, only "homosexual", as did the Daily Telegraph in its story, though it succumbed in its headline ("Gays should be welcomed as priests says Bishop"); the Guardian's story, except when quoting him directly, used "gay" throughout. Bishop Baker is rising 70 and may have thought gay too slangy and unepiscopal, or he may have thought that it was a word used in this context principally by people who are gay, which he himself is not.

If so, he could be yet another victim of a long-standing misconception. It has often been said that homosexuals have "stolen" or "hijacked" a beautiful word which can no longer be used for its rightful purposes (how dare they etc). This is wrong on two counts. First: a glance at the big OED, which has a fine entry on it, shows that although gay had a promising start, meaning sprightly, joyful and full of mirth, its subsequent career has often been neither strait nor narrow. By the 17th century it had begun to be a euphemism for the dissipated - those who had, shall we say, overdone the mirth and joy. By the 18th it could mean cheeky or off-hand, and by the 19th it was being widely used to mean a loose woman or prostitute. It was fairly early in the 20th that it became part of American prison and underworld slang to mean a homosexual.

Second: it is extremely doubtful whether self-respecting homosexuals would have originally chosen for themselves a word with so dubious a history. As Wayne Dynes put it in his Homolexis ("A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality") published in 1985, "the eventual application to homosexual men could not but bear overtones of promiscuity and 'fallen' status". Just the image that homosexuals would not want to project.

Nicholas Bagnall