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The Scrivener: Gladsomely Gay

“Have you gladded anything lately?’’ asks Brian Barratt as he sails again on the wonderful Ocean of Words.

Have you gladded anything lately? Probably not. At least, it's unlikely that you have used 'glad' as a verb. But the word was used in that way, meaning to be glad or to make glad, over 1,000 years ago. It's one of those terms that William Shakespeare rarely uses in his plays — only three times:

In Pericles:

Your presence glads our days. Honour we love;
For who hates honour hates the gods above

In Henry VIII:

God safely quit her of her burden, and
With gentle travail, to the gladding of
Your Highness with an heir!


This was a judgment on me, that my kingdom,
Well worthy the best heir o' th' world, should not
Be gladded in't by me.

In Old English, glæd meant bright, shining, joyous. It came to mean kind and gracious, joyful and merry.

There was also gladsome, a rather pleasant sounding word which seems to have dropped out of use. Perhaps people think it's too 'old fashioned'. Many words ending in -some have disappeared. We have kept just a few, such as awesome, bothersome, gruesome and handsome. In fact, awesome has become a teenage buzz-word alongside amazing and incredible. In the process, all have lost their real meaning and impact.

Gladsome has survived in the hymn 'Let us with a gladsome mind'. We can see it in literature. Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol:

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, 'My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?

Charlotte Bronte used it beautifully in Jane Eyre:

I was not surprised, when I ran down into the hall, to see that a brilliant June morning had succeeded to the tempest of the night; and to feel, through the open glass door, the breathing of a fresh and fragrant breeze. Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy.

By the way, glade is a related word. It originally meant a bright place, an open space in a forest. It has so much more meaning than simply saying 'a clearing', doesn't it?

Gay, another cheerful word, came from Middle French gai about 700 years ago. It meant joyful, mirthful. It’s certainly a versatile word. Over the centuries, it has been used in many different ways. The following dates are the approximate first appearances in print of some of them, recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1350 in poetry, applied in praise of women.

1386 bright showy, colourful.

1400 gallant

1470 fine, excellent

1529 of people, attractive, charming

1637 addicted to pleasure, immoral

1796 of a quality or amount, quite good

1805 of women, involved in prostitution

1855 in good health.

1800s immoral, related to sexual intercourse, to do with prostitution, amorous, intoxicated, lively

Early 1900s of a dog’s tail, carried high or erect

1930s homosexual, especially of males.

So if you wish to describe someone as gay, you could be making a neutral comment about their sexual preferences; positively complimenting them on their charming behaviour; or making a negative observation that they are immoral. As for their dog's tail, well, that's a different matter.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2004, 2007, 2011

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