Although the word gay was occasionally used from the late 19th Century onwards to mean homosexual (in a pejorative sense), its most common meaning until the 1980s was bright, carefree or happy. However, during the last three decades, gay has become the most common and accepted word for homosexual, both as a noun and an adjective.
The word is used frequently in its old-fashioned sense in Tipping the Velvet, although generally in contexts where it is possible to see some ambiguity in its meaning.
It has been suggested that there are precedents to this ambiguous use of the word gay in Gertrude Stein's novel Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (1922), and in some of Noel Coward's lyrics, such as the following lines from Green Carnation (1929):
And as we are the reason
For the "Nineties" being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.