An antedating for gay, and other treasures from the Burgess Papers

An antedating for gay, and other treasures from the Burgess Papers

When further information about an OED entry which has already been revised comes to light, we can and do make use of it, publishing a further-updated version of the entry as soon as we can. This happened recently with the word gay, in the sense ‘homosexual’, and although attention wasn’t specifically drawn to it when the very latest version of the entry was published a few months ago, it certainly deserves a mention, especially because of the further ongoing research we are doing in the same archival collection that furnished the new piece of evidence for gay: the Ernest W. Burgess Papers at the University Library of Chicago.

Ernest Watson Burgess (1886–1966) was a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. During the early twentieth century he and his students conducted extensive sociological research in the Chicago area, often focusing on particular communities and subcultures. Several of these studies focused on homosexuality; accordingly, the Burgess Papers, which include research materials collected by Burgess and his students, are a valuable source of documentation about the history of Chicago’s gay community. It was a reference to a possible early instance of the (frequently derogatory) slang term bulldagger ‘lesbian’ that first drew my attention to the Burgess Papers; but I soon realized that the collection might hold valuable documentation of other slang terms relating to human sexuality.

I made contact with the Special Collections Research Center at Chicago’s University Library, where librarian Barbara Gilbert was immensely helpful; she sent me scans of several documents dating from the 1930s, including some which she had picked out as likely to be worth reading from a lexicographical point of view. It turned out that the scanned documents included the instance of bulldagger that I had been looking for: a reference to ‘a bull diggars’ ball’ from a document that can convincingly be dated to 1934 or thereabouts. However, I was more excited to read another document, likewise undated, but similarly datable from internal evidence to the year 1937. This was a typescript recording the sexual experiences—evidently in his own words—of an unnamed young man. And here I found the following sentence: ‘Al had told me that Kenneth was not gay but jam, and so I acted very manly.’—jam being a now disused slang term for ‘heterosexual’ (and a word which requires further investigation: this use of jam is not yet in the OED).

Jam image

Up to this point, the earliest unambiguous instance of gay used to mean ‘homosexual’ known to us (and given in the OED entry) was from a glossary compiled by Gershon Legman and published in 1941. My 1937 quotation was therefore an antedating: only by four years…but that is a significant find for a word whose history is a subject of such widespread interest, and has been investigated extensively over the last few decades. I was therefore very pleased that we could now add the new quotation—with a bibliographical reference crediting the Burgess Papers—to the OED entry.

A couple of other important early quotations for other items of sexual slang also turned up in the scans which I’d received from Chicago; these have also been added to the relevant OED entries. But this seemed unlikely to have exhausted the Burgess Papers as a source: the online catalogue to the collection showed that it contained many other documents which looked worth examining. Following the publication of the 1937 quotation, our attention was also drawn to a possible 1934 instance of gay from another document in the collection. Accordingly, I have asked my Chicago correspondents to send me further scans, and I look forward to making further lexicographical discoveries as I continue to explore this fascinating material.


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