The English words "gay" and "queer" are originally adjectives with a broad range of possible use contexts, but currently they are used almost exclusively in reference to certain minorities. It has become difficult to use these words in their original meaning and tone; trying to use "gay" as a synonym of "happy" without any homosexual connotations seems almost impossible to me. Moreover, some people learning English today are unaware of these other (older?) meanings altogether.

Are there words like "gay" and "queer" in Latin? That is, are there any similar cases in Latin, where an originally broader adjective has come to refer to something very specific, possibly a group of people? Which Latin adjectives are closest to the phenomenon seen in the two English examples? Is there, by any chance, a (substantivized?) Latin adjective that means something similar to "gay" or "queer" but used to be broader? I have no idea how close to this Latin gets, so weaker occurrences of this phenomenon are welcome as answers, too.

To be specific, I am not interested in words loaned from Latin to other languages (that would merit a separate question), but in this effect within the Latin language.


2 Answers 2


I can think of three examples, two of which may or may not fit your strict definitions.

The first is optimas. Though it can mean "aristocratic" (as a substantive, "aristocrat"), it most often in its attested use refers specifically to the aristocratic party (in the plural optimates) that opposed the populares, where you get someone like Caesar, clearly a patrician and an aristocrat, not be an optimas, but a popular on account of his political affiliations.

The other two are amicus and amica. The former never lost its more normal meaning of "friend", but it did strongly gain the meaning of "political ally". Lewis & Short note that all socii were amici, but not all amici were socii, for what it's worth. The alliance between states was both amicitia and foedus, so that allies of Rome were called "friend and ally" (amicus sociusque).

Unlike gay, which always had a slightly narrower connotation than happy, amicus is the most ordinary way to say "friend", and thus never fully lost that meaning.

A rarer word, and so a more difficult word to evaluate, but amica, while sometimes meaning "female friend", more often was synonymous with meretrix, though I do believe after a while, it reversed. L&S give plenty of examples in imperial literature where it has the more ordinary meaning.


Sexuality of all kinds was largely tolerated in republican Rome, and though various kinds of behaviour met with censure in some quarters, it was probably accepted as inevitable by all, if distasteful to some. 'Unnatural' behaviour is referred to, described, or alleged all over the place: here are some examples:

Cicero (Tusc V, 33) has something to say about it. The Satyricon has characters who live by it. Catullus makes insulting references to cinaedi (e.g. XXV), in XVI threatens to revenge himself by inflicting the worst possible physical (sc. sexual) degradation, and accuses Caesar in several poems of sexual irregularity (e.g. with Mamurra).

I may be wrong, but I think that with the attitudes then prevailing, it is unlikely that the Romans would think that there was much need of perverting(!) words to a sexual usage.

[Added in response to changes in the question and its title] :

The answer as given above was written in the light of the question's second paragraph, for which I think it is valid. As I now read the modified question, it looks for any adjectives deliberately chosen to have their use so altered for the purpose of perceiving the nouns to which they were epithetical in a completely abnormal way — which then would be normalized.

Of the examples given, the word queer has in fact lost little of its proper meaning and merely retains the pejorative sense in referring to sexual deviance that it has had for a very long time. On the other hand, gay is a word with associations once only pleasant, which was deliberately chosen as an epithet to be promulgated for the improvement of the public image of those to whom it was to be applied.

I suggest that cases where (in the words of the question) 'an originally broader adjective has come to refer to something very specific, possibly a group of people' are certainly possible in Latin. Instances can be found in any comprehensive dictionary where a different meaning is described as 'late'. However, it seems to me that this kind of (anarchical?) campaign to introduce a calculated change of meaning must be rare in any language.

  • 3
    Tom, I believe the answer misses the OP's point. I think the question is about the process where a substantivized (as it always happen with adjectival signifiers of groups, like the rich etc.) adjective is applied metaphorically and euphemically (like gay), and then later loses its original meaning, and likely even turns into a noun (so we can say a gay or gays now). So this is not about the driver behind the euphemization (like the sex taboo in the gay example), rather whether such development is attested is Latin. Can you think of such examples? Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 21:52
  • @kkm, I agree. It's not answering the question (as it now stands after a deal of editing). I am tempted to withdraw it immediately, but will first consider if I can modify it suitably.
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 6:13
  • I did rewrite the title (and made minor edits to the question body), but the question was always about the general phenomenon @kkm describes. The original title may have been somewhat misleading, and I apologize for that.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 8:48
  • 1
    At the risk of veering off topic, I'd quibble with a lot of this. (1) The use of "queer" to mean "strange, odd" is substantially less common than it used to be. (2) "Queer" in the sexual sense is no longer solely a pejorative but has been reclaimed. (3) "Gay" was actually a sexual pejorative when it was chosen by the gay community: the OED shows that in the 15th century the word "gay" acquired senses such as "wanton, lewd" and later "dissolute, promiscuous" and then in the 18th c. "living off prostitution".
    – rjpond
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 22:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.