Gay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Gay Meaning
older meaning of Gay comes from the Old French gai,
“light-headed” or “joyful,” which became first a
nickname and then a surname. T
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 Resources on

Gay Ancestry

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
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.

has been mainly a West
Country name
, although there were early sightings elsewhere. John and Alice Gay were recorded in the
county of Devon in the late 14th century.
son John, born in 1409, held Goldsworthy manor in Devon.
Descendants included John Gay
the poet and dramatist
was born in Barnstaple in 1685.

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
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,
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
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;
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
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

  • first was John Gay who
    came to New England with Winthrop’s fleet and a party of a
    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
    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.
    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.

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

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.

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 Miscellany

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

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
Channel into which it broadens, an area that has been dominated since
the 1300’s
by the ancient port of Bristol.

fact that Gays also appear in numbers in the adjacent southwest
counties of Dorset and Hampshire is unsurprising and merely reinforces
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
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
Goldsworthy in Parkham. This they held until 1630, when it passed out
of their
hands to the Coffins.

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

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
Nonconformist divine of the town, and by her had five children. The
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:

young John Gay the Puritan
Massachusetts came
went to work right there
and then
make himself a name.
were one thousand Puritan’s
of them
en of fame
brought their flocks and herds with them
stores of every
settled at old Watertown
and Charlestown too
friends of near renown,
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
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.

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.

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.

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.”

was a
supporter of the Southern cause during the Civil War, but witnessed the
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.

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.

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
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.

was said of him on his death:

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

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
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.

Select 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 Austrlalia)


Select 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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