Decline and rise of gay

Geoff Nunberg writes with this Google Ngram:

 

This shows the usage of gay (at least in the books Google samples) gently declining until roughly 1980 and then zooming up. The interpretation I’d provide here is that “old gay ‘merry’ ‘” was declining very slowly (it became “old-fashioned”), until “new gay ‘homosexual’ ” eventually took over massively. But others might have other interpretations.

2 Responses to “Decline and rise of gay

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    “Gay” as an adjective meaning ‘homosexual’ is now at home in German, where it is a fully declined German adjective. You remember Mark Twain saying he’d rather decline three drinks than one German adjective.

  2. Alon Says:

    The interpretation I’d provide here is that “old gay ‘merry’ ‘” was declining very slowly (it became “old-fashioned”), until “new gay ‘homosexual’ ” eventually took over massively.

    A sensible explanation, and one that’s possible to check. If we take bigrams that are characteristic of 19th century use (e.g., ‘gay attire’ or ‘gay company’) and contrast their frequency against bigrams that are characteristic of late 20th century use (e.g., ‘gay community’ or ‘gay rights’), you can see them cross in the early 1970s, after which point the slow decline of the old meaning quickly collapses.

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