Please Return The Word Gay

It is of the least possible concern to me what homosexuals do with one another in the privacy of their homes. They can play house, plot political strategies or couple anonymously--I really don't care. I'm not offended and I wouldn't try to stop them if I could. But I want the word "gay" back. "Gay" used to be an extremely useful word. It showed up frequently in poetry and prose--Shakespeare used it 12 times--in part because it has no precise synonym. The general sense of the word is a combination of joyous, mirthful, bright, exuberant, cheerful, sportive, merry, light-hearted, lively, showy and pleasant.

The Oxford English Dictionary requires an entire page to explain the etymology and nuances of "gay" as it has appeared in literature throughout history. The citations show that during the 1600s it began to acquire a few darker meanings and that some used it to mean "prostitute" or to describe someone addicted to social pleasure and dissipation, but on balance the word kept fine company.

Milton wrote of "the gay motes that people the sunbeams." Wordsworth in his "Ode to Duty" claimed "a poet could not but be gay / in such a jocund company." The poet Joseph Addison wrote of "Gay gilded scenes and shining prospects." The last writer to pen a significant quotation using "gay" with its old connotations, according to Bartlett, was William Butler Yeats, who died in 1939. In the early 1950s, then, homosexual men adopted the word and began using it as in group slang, but did it make any sense? Homosexuals back then didn't seem any more or less joyful, mirthful, bright, exuberant, cheerful, sportive, merry, light-hearted and pleasant than heterosexuals.

This new meaning for "gay" entered the popular vocabulary as homosexuals became increasingly visible and vocal in the 1960s and, in effect, caused the word to lose every shade of meaning it ever once had. The word now forces us to think of sexual preferences and behavior--if, for instance, I refer to someone as a "gay young man" in a newspaper story, I had better be prepared to produce his boyfriend or else find myself a good lawyer. School children now snort at the line "Once in the saddle I used to go gay" from the lugubrious cowboy lament, "The Streets of Laredo." And probably there isn't anyone who can sing "Don we now our gay apparel" without thinking of drag queens.

Some may argue that we have a tradition in America of allowing groups to decide what they want to be called. But we can allow this only when we have no other, conflicting use for the new terms. Imagine if African Americans had said, "We are no longer "black.' Please refer to us as "cool'." Or if Asian Americans had chosen to be called "perfect" instead of Oriental?" These are words we all need, "cool" and "perfect," and I would fight to keep them.

And so, I am prepared to fight for "gay." I know this will be a bitter battle and a lot of stationery will have to be thrown out if I win, and so why not offer a reasonable compromise: I am prepared to yield the homosexual population the word "fabulous," free and clear.

We will henceforth speak of fabulous rights, fabulous bars, fabulous health centers with fabulous doctors. We will write moody, sociological feature stories about the plight of fabulous teens, the turmoil in the soul of fabulous clergymen and congressmen, and the never-ending debate over fabulous marriages.

It's a word just waiting to be usurped. It comes from the Latin fabula, meaning story or fable, and generally connotes something that is so grand as to seem mythical or legendary. Hundreds of years ago, it says in my reference books, the word was occasionally used as an adjective to denote mild absurdity, but today "fabulous" carries no negative baggage.

And, as a writer, I find it an expendable arrow in my quiver. I can't really use it without sounding pretentious or silly. Indeed, who has ever really used it with any regularity save for fashion writers, movie critics groping for superlatives and high-society types describing anything about which they have remotely positive feelings? It appears but twice in Shakespeare, once in Bartlett's and not at all in the Bible.

Furthermore, we have an abundance of good, crisp synonyms in the language that approximate "fabulous," including great, terrific, awesome, wonderful, stupendous and marvelous. Is there a demographic subgroup anywhere that wouldn't like those words to describe its lifestyle? Now it's true that fabulous with three syllables is not quite as catchy as gay, but there is always the shortened, slangy form, "fab.' This word could easily be adapted to a new use, although the surviving Beatles ("the Fab Four") and the people who manufacture the laundry soap might or might not be pleased.

So try these on for size. Fab bookstores. Fabulous computer dating services. Fab crisis hotlines. Fab film festivals. The growing influence of the fabulous political lobby.

It's just right, now, isn't it? And if we all incorporate it into our vocabulary, someday seventh graders everywhere will giggle helplessly and poke each other in the ribs when they read Hart Crane's poem, "At Melville's Tomb:"

Monody shall not wake the mariner This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps

I feel quite gay just thinking about it.