, Newburyport, MA


June 10, 2013

Philanderers and philolexics


Have you ever wondered when “gay,” the now commonly used word for same-sex relationships, came into use? Its ancestry can be traced back to the 12th century, when it meant “joyful, carefree, mirthful, or bright.” Five centuries later it began to be associated with immorality, with the connotation of addiction to pleasures and dissipations. In the 19th century it morphed again, taking on a distinctly sexual cast: a prostitute was a “gay” woman and a man with a lot of female partners was referred to as “gay.” The next gradual shift to its present meaning occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, and “gay” was firmly ensconced in its present denotation of preference for the same sex by 1955. Curiously, the noun “gaiety” has retained its 12th-century signification.

The word “meretricious” is a little long and a little obscure, but worth remembering and using. It seems that in Rome a couple of millennia ago, a “meretrix” was a prostitute, a woman who earns, the word having been derived from the Latin word “merere,” meaning “to earn.” Since the ladies of the night or (a quaint phrase) “women of easy virtue” were offering an insincere or counterfeit love “alluring by a show of flashy or vulgar attractions,” the word meretricious — of a or like a prostitute — evolved to cover anything insincere and tawdry.

Scholarly types in some professions are accustomed to attending “symposiums,” which The Free Dictionary (online) defines as “a meeting or conference for discussion of a topic, especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations.” The 21st-century attendee at such an event might be surprised to learn that among the ancient Greeks, it was far more than today’s symposium, being “a convivial meeting” not only for discussion, but for music and drinking, evidently of great social importance. And it even involved sex, which I don’t suppose is involved in modern symposia — I wouldn’t know.

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