Etymology of ‘Gay’ (Arnold, 1867)

1.405. Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature, (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1867), pp. 100-101. BL 11840.ppp.6

An extract from Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867), on the etymology of the word ‘gay’.

Arnold is here giving an account of the sentimental nature of the Celt:

An organisation quick to feel impressions, and feeling them very strongly; a lively personality therefore, keenly sensitive to joy and to sorrow; this is the main point.  If the downs of life too much outnumber the ups, this temperament, just because it is so quickly and nearly conscious of all impressions, may no doubt be seen shy and wounded; it may be seen in wistful regret, it may be seen in passionate, penetrating melancholy; but its essence is to aspire ardently after life, light, and emotion, to be expansive, adventurous, and gay.  Our word gay, it is said, is itself Celtic.  It is not from gaudium, but from the Celtic gair, to laugh . . .

To which is appended the following footnote:

The etymology is Monsieur Henri Martin’s, but Lord Strangford says: — “Whatever gai may be, it is assuredly not Celtic. Is there any authority for this word gair, to laugh, or rather “laughter,” beyond O’Reilly? O’Reilly is no authority at all except in so far as tested and passed by the new school. It is hard to give up gavisus. But Diez, chief authority in Romanic matters, is content to accept Muratori’s reference to an old High-German gâhi, modern jähe, sharp, quick, sudden, brisk, and so to the sense of lively, animated, high in spirits.”

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