07/30/2015 10:26 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

In a Word, What It Means to Be Gay

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I've always thought certain things were necessary for an intelligent conversation. Lips are a biggie. It's hard to understand anyone who can't use them properly.

Beyond that, however, it helps if everyone knows what page everyone is on when it comes to vocabulary. Because while we might assume everyone understands what a term means, the truth is most of us tend to view things differently.

For instance, if I'm talking about a litter problem: It helps to know if I'm an environmentalist or someone who has two horny feral cats living under my porch. (Residents of Berkeley are often known to be concerned with both.)

So, it seems to me the first thing we should do is define terms. Now of course there are a lot of them. (Evolving communities of millions of diverse people are funny that way.) So, to prevent everyone from getting bored to death, we'll take them one by one, every few weeks or so. First up, the word that comes to most people's minds when talking about homosexual issues: "gay."
Obviously, this term means homosexual -- someone who loves someone of the same gender. What's interesting, however, is where the word comes from and how the perception of the word has changed over time.

The original meaning of gay was in reference to being light and carefree. This goes back to the early 17th century, the end of the Renaissance. This entire period marking the end of the Dark Ages, it's no wonder everyone was in a good mood. Indeed, as late as the 1970s, American game shows were using the term "gay 90s" without any snickering from contestants whatsoever.

The first use of gay to denote homosexuality, however, is somewhat more uncertain. There is evidence it was used as slang in late 19th century England and America. (The famous "gay 90s") It also popped up about the same time in America in the form of "gey cat," a term used for young hobos, many of whom may have been involved in older-male dominant relationships. (And you thought Amtrak had issues.)

In terms of contemporary slang, however, the word seems to start showing up in the 1920s. It began to find its way into psychological writing in the 1940s. Of note: It often seemed to simultaneously refer to some type of light and carefree behavior.

From a stereotype standpoint, I suppose this makes sense. As everyone "knows" gay people are always happy. Indeed, it was not until the Stonewall riots of 1969 that many people had any idea gay people were madder than hell.

Still confusing, however: Why did "gay," of all the words for light and carefree, come to mean homosexuality? Why not "blithe" or "airy"? Why aren't people coming out as "nonchalant"? Or right-wing conservatives talking about the "insouciant agenda"? (OK, that one's easy: No one can pronounce it.)

Digging a little further seems to provide an answer: "Gay" not only meant carefree, it also often referred to a hedonistic lifestyle. Not that hedonism is necessarily a bad thing. Last I checked, "pleasure seeking" was the reason people went to Disneyland.

Most people, however, seem to interpret the concept of hedonism negatively. Even Google ties it into: "self-indulgence... self-gratification, lotus eating." Not exactly the kind of behavioral traits one hopes pops out at Thanksgiving. Especially that last part about lotuses. No matter what the occasion, it's rude to eat the table's centerpiece.

In other words, from dinner to the dictionary, the use of gay seems to have some roots in a sense of disapproval.

There's a shock.

If that was the end of the story -- and it pretty much was before Stonewall and still is among the Limbaugh types -- that would be a problem. Thankfully, however, the meanings of words can change for the positive. A process known as amelioration, it's why "jolly" now refers to Santa Claus and no longer means "arrogant." (Although, let's be honest: If you could fly around the planet at will and get into anyone's house totally unseen, wouldn't you be arrogant?)

But more than just the changing perception of the word gay, there is thankfully a changing perception of gays themselves. In 2010, barely 50 percent of Americans saw homosexual relationships as acceptable. By 2015, that number was up to 69 percent.

And that's something to feel pretty gay about.