drag / in drag / drag queen

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by jgodfroy » Sat Mar 26, 2005 7:56 pm

I heard recently that the phrase 'drag queen' and to dress in 'drag' comes from Shakespeare. Dr.a.g. meaning Dressed As Girl is footnoted at the bottom of some of the original folio pages indicating when a male actor (playing a female part) enters.

I have also heard that there was no such thing as an acroynm before the 1850s or so. (Actually, I read that in a post many years ago.) So, naturally, I am very skeptical about the origins of 'drag.'

Can someone help me out on this? Did Shakespeare really write that? Is that where we get 'drag' from?



drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Mar 27, 2005 6:34 am

Jason, A very strong indicator that a derivation of a word is a fake is a claim that it is an acronym for something – which seems to be, and has been, a favorite pastime of bogus etymology creators the world over. To give you a sense of the aroma, I’ll mention a few of the more notorious examples: GOLF stands for 'Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden'; NEWS – North, East, West, and South; FUCK - For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge; TIP - To Insure Promptness; SHIT - Ship High In Transit; BVD - Boys Ventilated Draws; POSH - Port Out, Starboard Home; COP - Constabel On Patrol, etc., etc.

The use of acronyms was actually quite rare in the English language until after World War I and a good rule of thumb was suggested a few years ago by Random House’s 'Word Maven,' Jesse Sheidlower, now an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, when confronted with yet another proposed bogus acronymic etymology:
“If you automatically answer ‘it's not an acronym’ in response to any suggestion that a word originated from one, you'll be ahead of the game.”
A slight problem with the Shakespeare explanation is that the expression didn’t come into use until centuries after his time. However, the word DRAG (1870) did actually originate in the theater and originally was a noun referring to women’s clothing worn on stage by a male actor, especially for comic purposes. They gave the clothing the name ‘drag’ because the dresses dragged along the floor as the actors walked, and to be dressed in such a way was also known as being IN DRAG. DRAG also soon became an adjective (1887) describing a female theatrical role, especially a comic role, played by a male actor.

Michael Quinion has found compelling evidence (see below) that seems to indicate that the sexual association of ‘drag’ with homosexuals/transvestites and their attire occurred almost immediately upon the invention of the term, although previous to his finding this association was thought by some (e.g. Jonathon Green of Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang) not to have occurred until the 1920s and 1930s, although the 1914 quote below suggests earlier sexual connotations than that. And it is the 1920 and 1930s that is the source of most of the available early quotations using DRAG in this sense as both a noun and adjective. DRAG (noun and adj.) also came to denote ‘drag bars’ and ‘drag dances’ for male homosexuals and transvestites. And by 1941 DRAG QUEEN had became a term for a male homosexual transvestite and also for a female impersonator (not necessarily a homosexual). By the late 1950s DRAG had also come to be used to mean any costume or disguise.
<1870 “We shall come IN DRAG, which means men wearing women’s costumes.”—“Reynold’s Magazine,” 29 May, page 5/5>

<1873 “DRAG, feminine attire worn by men. A recent notorious impersonation case led to the publication of the word in that sense.”—‘Slang Dictionary’ (edition 4) by Hoteen>

<1887 “Mrs. Sheppard is now played by a man . . . I don’t like to see low [comedians] in DRAG parts, but . . . Mr. Steyne is really droll.”—‘Passing English’ by Ware, page 117>

<1914 “Amongst female impersonators on the stage and men of dual sex instincts “DRAG” denotes female attire donned by a male.”—‘Vocabulary’ by Jackson & Hellyer, page 30>

<1925 “I’d been to a DRAG dance with earrings on.”—‘Stockings’ by McAlmon, page 62>

<1933 “We thought you were a Lesbian IN DRAG when we first saw you.”—‘Young & Evil’ by Ford & Tyler, page 11>

<1941 “DRAG-QUEEN. A professional female impersonator; the term being transferentially used of male homosexual who frequently . . . wears women’s clothing.”—G. Legman in ‘Sex Variations’ by Henry, II. page 1164>

<1949 “DRAG-QUEEN: One who makes a living doing female impersonations in a DRAG-SHOW, or otherwise appears frequently IN DRAG.”—“Gay Girl’s Guide,” page 8>

<1959 “My Spartan hair-do and my teenage DRAG and all.”—‘Absolute Beginners’ by C. MacInnes, page 27> [[costume]]

<1966 “Laurence Olivier, doing his Othello voice and attired painstakingly in Arab DRAG.”—‘Listener,’ 23 June, page 918/3> [[costume]]
The term CROSS-DRESS, meaning to dress in clothes of the opposite sex as a TRANSVESTITE is first recorded in 1911 and comes from a translation of German ‘Transvestismus,’ which later appeared in English as ‘transvestism’ (1928).
<1911 CROSS-DRESSING must be taken as a general indication of , and a cognate phenomenon to homosexuality.”—E. Carpenter>

<1928 “It was clearly a typical case of what Hirschfeld later termed ‘TRANSVESTISM’ and what I would call ‘sexo-aesthetic inversion’, or more simply, ‘Eonism.’”—‘Studies in the Psychology of Sex’ by H. Ellis, VII. i. page 10>

<1938 “So unimportant is the sexual element that TRANSVESTISM is common in many dance-forms
and produces no feeling of embarrassment.”—‘Spectator,’ 2 December, page 962/1>
Note: Originally, DRAG, TRANSVESTITE, and CROSS-DRESS referred to males dressing up as women, but today, although that is still the predominant meaning, they are regarded as unisex terms. DRAG-QUEEN, however, as far as I know, still refers to a male transvestite.

(Oxford English Dictionary, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 20th Century Words by Ayto and Dictionary of Word Origins by Ayto)

Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words

DRAG: When it first appeared ‘drag’ referred only to the wearing of female attire by men; the unisex implications are much more recent.

The origin is thought to be from Victorian theatrical usage in reference to the dragging sensation of long skirts on the ground, an unfamiliar sensation to men. The usage is not found in print until the 1870s but must surely be older. Jonathon Green suggests that the gay implications did not arise until the 1920s, and that all the early citations in the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ refer to fancy dress.

But I’ve recently seen a pair of illustrations from a London publication, ‘The Day’s Doings’ of 20 May 1871, that showed Frederick William Park, a well-known homosexual of the period whose “campish undertakings” with Ernest Boulton in the Burlington Arcade in 1870 had landed them both in court. The drawings are captioned “Park in mufti” and “Park in ‘drag’ ”. Note the quote marks that indicate a word that was felt to be slang, or at least not quite respectable. I suspect that the camp associations of drag were present pretty much from the start.

Ken G – March 26, 2005

drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by haro » Sun Mar 27, 2005 11:12 pm

Ken, you know I very much respect your competence and appreciate the way you dig up hidden gems. However, Jesse Sheidlower's advice applies also to 'cabal.' See http://www.snopes.com/language/acronyms/cabal.htm . None of my sources supports the acronym version, and that in various languages. The term 'cabale' / 'cabala' and almost countless other orthographic variants were in use many centuries before those five guys wetted their diapers.
Signature: Hans Joerg Rothenberger

drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Mar 28, 2005 1:31 am

Hans Joerg, Thanks for catching that. How right you are. That was a bad booboo. I was basing this on something I wrote several years ago before I was older but no wiser than I am now, and I got lazy and didn’t recheck it, of course, considering, that, if I had previously written it, it must be infallible (<:) – I should have tried to reverify such an anomalous-sounding occurrence. I’ve expunged the blunder from my above statement and when I get a chance I’ll do penance by writing a posting on the real etymology of CABAL.

P.S. Just noticed that Ask the Wordwizard answered the question and I'll have to check to see if there is anything more than that to be said.

Ken - March 27, 2005

drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Mar 28, 2005 4:01 am

.. *grins and puts big cross on wall next to computer .. colours date in red* .. yep .. it sure is a BIG day ..

WoZ of Aus 28/03/05
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Mar 28, 2005 5:48 am

Yeah Wiz, That’s only the second mistake I’ve ever made in my life, and the first one was thinking that I made a mistake when I really didn’t! (<:)

Yours in near infallibility,

Ken – March 27, 2005

drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Mar 30, 2005 11:55 pm

.. Ken that most infallible of infallibles is nearing the end if his term of office .. got your tickets for Rome yet ?? .. heavens knows it is time we had a yank for Pope .. imagine all the innovations that they could bring to the office AND all that money at their disposal .. Bush is pushing the Christian fundamentalists isn't he ??

WoZ of Aus 31/03/05
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by ReyJLeija » Sun Sep 23, 2018 10:25 am

There are words that do originate from acronyms. For instance "scuba" originated in 1952 from self contained underwater breathing aparatus. The word drag always has confusing origins. I read where it came from the feeling of long dresses dragging on the floor but that still doesnt make sense. Women also know that feeling and at one time in history it was different to them also. And if you have ever been in drag there are so many other feelings that would overpower that feeling anyway. The acronym term makes more sense to me but probably not at the shakespearean time but way later. If we are making up histories, one could also say it comes from DRess on a fAG. Or we can also say that the word fag comes from Fabulous And Gay instead of the odd comparison of homsexuals burning at the stake to a bundle of stick. Im just saying some origins are hard to find and I dont believe that this is one that we can truly prove.

Re: drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Sep 23, 2018 8:36 pm

Welcome Rey. The word "fag" in the UK refers to a cigarette not a gay man, so I have to say that your assumption is unlikely.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: drag / in drag / drag queen

Post by tony h » Sun Sep 23, 2018 10:06 pm

Bobinwales wrote:
Sun Sep 23, 2018 8:36 pm
Welcome Rey. The word "fag" in the UK refers to a cigarette not a gay man, so I have to say that your assumption is unlikely.
Or, at a boarding school, a younger boy acting as a servant to sixth former. This practice is, I understand, very much less common than it used to be and possibly eradicated.
Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Post Reply