Gay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Gay Surname Meaning

The older meaning of Gay comes from the Old French gai, meaning “light-headed” or “joyful,” which became first a nickname and then a surname. The word could also have the undesirable meaning of “wanton” or “‘lascivious’ in some cases. Gay as a surname might as well have been derived from the place-name Gaye in Normandy.

Gay Surname Resources on The Internet

Gay Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern France, Western England and Scotland
  • to America, Canada and Australia

The surname Gay has French origins and France has the largest numbers of those with the name Gay today, estimated to be around 20-25,000. This surname might have had its origin in Normandy. There were early reports of the Gaye name in the Channel Islands after the Norman invasion of England. But most Gays are to be found in southern France today, with some overflow into French-speaking Switzerland.

Prominent French Gays have been Jean Baptiste Gay, a statesman at the time of the Bourbon restoration, and Joseph Gay-Lussac, a chemist who lived at the same time and was best known for his work on gases.

England.  Gay has been mainly a West Country name, although there were early sightings elsewhere.

West Country.  John and Alice Gay were recorded in the county of Devon in the late 14th century. Their son John, born in 1409, held Goldsworthy manor in Devon. Descendants included John Gay the poet and dramatist, who was born in Barnstaple in 1685.

The Gay name was prominent in the town of Bath from the early 1500’s when John Gay was the mayor of the town. He later acquired the nearby Haycombe estate. This estate was subsequently inherited by Richard Gay, a Baptist Minister and the friend in the 1660’s of the John Bunyan of Pilgrim’s Progress fame. Bunyan and possibly Gay as well were imprisoned for their religious beliefs at that time.

There were Gay stone masons in Bath in the 1700’s; while Robert Gay, later the MP for Bath, went to London where he made a name for himself as a surgeon. He died in 1737 and Gay Street in Bath was named after him.

The Gay name had also appeared in Bristol in the 17th century where Anthony Gay who died in 1683 was a merchant, working with family members that were based in Barnstaple in Devon. George Gay was an architect and builder active in Bristol in the mid-19th century.

Elsewhere.  A de Gay family flourished in north Oxfordshire in the 12th century and included Robert Gay who founded a Cistercian abbey at Otley in 1137.

The Gay name cropped up in East Anglia, but later. William Gray was the first of the Gays of Alborough New Hall in Norfolk in the early 1600’s; William Gay was MP for Ipswich in 1621; and Dr. William Gay was recorded in Kelvedon in Essex in the 1690’s.

Scotland. The Gay name was also to be found in Fifeshire in Scotland. William Gay was born in Crail, Fife in 1778. Thomas Gay of this family was a whaling captain who married and settled down in New Zealand where he died in 1865.

The name here probably came from the much older Gayre family who held Castle Gay in the glen of Callowa. Castle Gay was the title of a 1930 novel by John Buchan.

America. There were two early Gay arrivals in America.

Early Gays.  The first was John Gay who came to New England with Winthrop’s fleet and a party of a thousand Puritans in 1630. He settled in Watertown and later in Dedham, Massachusetts. The Puritan streak ran deep. It was said that eleven of the Gay family had graduated from Harvard by 1826, five of whom became ministers. Some of these Gays migrated to Canada in the 1760’s.

Then came Henry Gay who arrived in Virginia on the Safety in 1638. He and his descendants were to be found in Isle of Wight county. Gays were still to be found on the family farm in the late 19th century. One branch of the family settled in Northampton, North Carolina after the Revolutionary War.

Gays who came to Virginia in the 1730’s and 1740’s seem to have been Scots Irish in origin. This certainly applied to Samuel Gay who came with his family first into Philadelphia and then to Augusta county in Virginia. John Gay, a constable in Orange county, and four of his brothers settled along the Calfpasture river.

Georgia.  A significant number of Gays ended up in the state of Georgia. It ranked number two in terms of the number of Gays in America in 1840, number one in 1880, and has held that position since that time.

Gays appeared in Bulloch county, Georgia as early as 1788. William Gay from North Carolina lived most of his life in Lafayette county, Georgia where he died in 1852. His son Sherrod had a plantation near Riverdale.

Beth Gay has traced the line of Simon Gay from North Carolina who was living in Lowndes, Georgia in 1830 in her 1993 book Descendants of Simon Gay. Mary Gay, the southern writer, lived at Decatur in DeKalb county.’

Elsewhere.  The soul singer Marvin Gaye (murdered by his father Marvin Gay) and the sprinter Tyson Gay both hailed from Kentucky.

Canada.  David Gay from Massachusetts came to Nova Scotia in the early 1760’s and married Thankful Hayward there in 1764. Some Gays moved onwards to Prince Edward Island, others returned to America and Maine and later headed west. Thomas Gay ended up in Iowa.

Australia.  William Gay from Devon, a carpenter on the Medway, had arrived in Hobart in 1836 where he stayed, married, and raised a family. He got gold rush fever in the 1850’s and departed for Ballarat. He later settled down in the Armidale area of NSW.

Gay Surname Miscellany

Gays in the West Country.  The Gay surname presence in the West Country was commented as follows in the early 1900’s:

“Gays appear to be tightly clustered and they seem to favor coastal areas especially.  Their greatest concentration has been in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and radiating southwest from there into Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. 

Apart from Wiltshire, which is landlocked, all these English counties are proximate to the Severn river or to the Bristol Channel into which it broadens, an area that has been dominated since the 1300’s by the ancient port of Bristol. 

The fact that Gays also appear in numbers in the adjacent southwest counties of Dorset and Hampshire is unsurprising and merely reinforces the impression that this large and rather diffused cluster of southwest English Gays has rather a long history in this region. 

There is also some radiation from Gloucestershire into the adjacent Welsh county of Monmouth, and an independent cluster of Gays in the westernmost coastal Welsh county of Pembroke.”   

The Family Background of John Gay the Poet.  Gays were an old family who had settled in Devon when Gilbert le Gay through marriage came into possession of the manor of Goldsworthy in Parkham. This they held until 1630, when it passed out of their hands to the Coffins. 

Subsequently they were associated with the parish of Frittelstock near Great Torrington. In the parish registers of Barnstaple the name appeared from time to time.  In 1544 was recorded the death of Richard Gaye, and later of John Gaye, “gentill man,” and Johans Gay. 

From other sources it is known that Richard Gay was Mayor of the town in 1533 and Anthony Gay in 1638.  The records of the family have not been preserved, but at some time early in the 17th century there was at Frittelstock one John Gay, whose second son William was the father of the poet. 

William Gay resided at Barnstaple. Since he lived in a large house called Red Cross at the corner of Joy Street, it is reasonable to assume that he was well-to-do. He married a daughter of Jonathan Hanmer, the leading Nonconformist divine of the town, and by her had five children. The youngest child was John Gay the poet who was baptized at the Old Church in Barnstaple on September 16th, 1685. 

Reader Feedback: Gay in Norfolk.  I often look at your website in respect of my late mother’s maiden name of Gay.   She and her siblings and maternal parent have ancestors relating to Aldborough Hall, Norfolk and I often wonder why there is one person with the surname of Gray where his parents and siblings have the surname of Gay.  Any guide-lines would be much appreciated.  With kind regards, 

Katrina ( 

John Gay in America.  John Gay came to America in 1630 with Winthop’s fleet and a party of about one thousand Puritans.  He set sail from Ashford in Kent, although he was earlier thought to have hailed from Gloucester. 

A poem written to celebrate his family in America by William Gay in 1920 described his arrival in America as follows:

  • “When young John Gay the Puritan
  • To Massachusetts came
  • He went to work right there and then
  • To make himself a name.
  • There were one thousand Puritan’s
  • Some of them of fame
  • They brought their flocks and herds with them
  • And stores of every name.
  • They settled at old Watertown
  • Boston and Charlestown too
  • Unlike their friends of near renown,
  • They came prepared to do.”

Green Frederick Gay of Northampton, North Carolina.  Green Frederick Gay and four previous generations of Gays had lived and farmed in Northampton, North Carolina.  It was Jonathan Gay who had settled there after he served in the Revolutionary War and was given 234 acres for his service.

As a young man Green went west to find gold.  This was around 1870 when the travel west could be made by train.  On his way to Chicago he met with some companions and then ended up staking a gold claim in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota.  His daughter Laura said that he also went to Colorado and Wyoming.

In 1878 his little sister May sent a letter to him pleading that he return home.  He did so later in the year after selling his interest in the goldmine and returned to farm and to father a large family. He was much admired by his many children and grandchildren.

Mary Gay A Southern Writer.  Mary Gay was born the daughter of William and Mary Gay at the Gay family farm in Jones county, Georgia in 1829.  As a young girl she probably witnessed the brutal beatings that her grandfather handed out to his slaves.  However, these scenes then probably got blocked out of her mind.

When her father died she was still a young girl and her mother moved to Decatur in Dekalb county where she married again.  Mary grew up as a southern belle. She wrote poetry, her first piece My Valley Home appearing when she was just seventeen.  She published her first book in 1858 at the age of 29 under the name of “a Georgia Lady.”

She was a supporter of the Southern cause during the Civil War, but witnessed the devastation that the war caused on her home-town of Decatur.  When Sherman arrived there with his Union troops in 1864, Mary wote that “she stood tall and fixed a cold stare on the Union men.”  She endured the defeat mainly through the support she got from her Baptist church.

She did continue to write and The Pastor’s Story came out in 1870.  Her final book, published in 1907, was entitled The Transplanted: A Story of Dixie Before the War and established her audience. It provided a romanticized and nostalgic look at the antebellum South of the 1840’s in the years before the Civil War.

Reader Feedback – Gay in Erie, Pennsylvania.  I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania and am trying to learn more about where my family roots began, the surname being Gay.  I am seeking any tiny bit of information that might help me fill in the blanks on my Dad’s side; if maybe I could find out how the Gay name ended up in Erie county in the last 150 years or so.

Teresa Hedrick (

Thomas Gay of Chariton, Iowa.  Thomas Gay had been born on Prince Edward’s Island in 1837 and died at his home in Chariton, Iowa in 1908.  He had come with his parents as a young boy first to Rhode Island and then to Wisconsin and Illinois. After his marriage to Lolilla Ann Woods in 1862 he moved further west to Lucas county, Iowa where he made his home in Chariton.

It was said of him on his death:

“The days of his activity were spent in the country as a teacher and husbandman.  As a tribute to his character words are but poor instruments to express it. His long life of unblemished activity is the monument on which his virtues are enscrolled. He belonged to that finer type of manhood that are elevating in their very natures.

Intellectually he had no superior in Lucas county.  His information was broad and his liberality of thought never permitted him to take a circumscribed view of the social discussion or sentiment and yet with a firm conviction and fixed purpose.  This made him an interesting personage and one with whom it was a pleasure to come in contact.”

Gay Names

  • John Gay was a 17th century English poet and dramatist, the author of The Beggar’s Opera. 
  • George Gay, an English sailor, was a pioneer settler in Oregon territory in 1837. 
  • Marvin Gaye was an American soul singer.

Gay Numbers Today

  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Gloucestershire)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in Georgia)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Gay and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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