Isn’t it strange how the connotation of certain words changes over time? Take the word gay for example. Today it is either associated with same sex relationships or else it is used, mostly by teenagers, to denote stupidity.
One of the earliest uses of the word “gay” as a reference to homosexuality is believed to have been in 1929 in Noel Cowards play Biter Sweet, which ran for 697 performances at His Majesty’s (now Her Majesty’s) Theatre in London.
In the song Green Carnation four overdressed 1890’s dandies sang the following lines:-
Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation…
And as we are the reason
For the “Nineties” being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.
Since the song is a reference to Oscar Wilde, who famously wore a green carnation, and who was jailed for gross indecency in 1895, it has been suggested that Coward may well have used the “gay nineties” as a double entendre.
On 10th January 1857 Punch published a cartoon headed “The Great Social Evil.”
The scene is outside the back door of a London West End Theatre, “not a hundred miles from the Haymarket”, and the time is midnight.
A poster on the wall is announcing a performance of of La Traviata, an opera which tells the story of a doomed courtesan.
Two ladies stand in front of the playbill.
Fanny, dressed up in her finest clothes, but looking haggard and careworn, is leaning wearily against the theatre door.
The other girl, Bella, wears shabby clothes and is either up from the country on a visit, or else she has come to London to look for work.
Bella is under no delusions as to how her friend can afford such costly clothing and is asking her “Ah! Fanny! How Long Have You Been Gay!” In other words, how long has she been a prostitute.
At the time the establishment itself was gripped by a moral panic with regards prostitution. One doctor estimated that there were 80,000 of them working with a combined earning power of around £8 million per annum.
Interestingly, some social commentators observed, as the next generation of commentators would do at the height of the Jack the Ripper scare, that the allure of the gay life was obvious to a girl of humble, or poverty-stricken, origins to whom the alternative was to either labour for long hours in the cramped and unhealthy atmosphere of a sweat shop or factory, or go into service for a middle or upper class London household.