I love words. This may be because I love talking, discussing, debating, arguing, commiserating, really engaging with people through words. This makes it very important to pick the right word to convey specific meaning. But what is the perfect word? Is it a contemporary word? Is the word used in a vernacular setting or in an academic setting? Is its meaning slang or SAT level? My love of words made Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, by George Chauncey, especially fascinating to read. Chauncey gives particular attention to the words used to describe the gay world of New York City.
What becomes very apparent while reading Gay New York is that the way present day society thinks of gay culture before World War II inaccurate. Many think of the 1960s as the begging of a gay culture, when in actuality the pre-WWII gay world has been hidden. Because this world has been lost for sometime we have lost the definitions of the words commonly used by its inhabitants. Chauncey points out the difficulty of applying current definitions of words to the historic usage. He states that: “we need to use it more cautiously and precisely, and to pay attention to the very different terms people used to describe themselves and their social worlds.”  It is easy to forget that the meaning and usage of words change. Chauncey does an excellent job of showing the transition of words but also of showing the great number of words used to describe those who lived in and interacted with the gay world.
Chauncey outlines where and by whom specific words would be used. Words such as wolf, fairy, punk, gay, queer, nance, and trade were more commonly used by those who would consider themselves part of a gay culture. Words like invert, pervert, degenerate, and homosexual were used by regulatory bodies such as police, doctors, and private censorship organizations.  Looking at these words out of context it is easy to find a definition for how one would use them now, but what about how they were used within a different context? What did they mean?
Perhaps one of the easiest places to see the transformation of a word is to look more closely at the evolution of the word gay. Chauncey points out that in the 1600s gay was used to talk about immoral pleasure, by the 1800s it referred to prostitution when talking about women.  It also could be used when talking about something brightly colored or flashily dressed. This last definition of gay could then describe the “flamboyant costumes adopted by many fairies” who might dress as women, wear makeup, or affect effeminate behaviors.  By the 1930s gay was used to both describe the flamboyant and to refer to sexual relationships, this can be seen in Carey Grant’s fabulous film Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 film. Grant is asked why he is dressed in a woman’s dressing gown. In exasperation is explodes jumping into the air exclaiming “I just went gay all of the sudden!”  Chauncey uses this clip to illuminate the common usage and understanding of gay.
The way words change and are re-defined is fascinating and Chauncey does an excellent job of showing how these words evolved and what that evolution meant. Just because we use the same words as those did 100 years ago does not mean the usage of the words are identical.
 Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994). 6.
 Ibid. 14-15.
 Ibid. 17.
 Ibid. 18.