Q From Sid Crawford: Why is someone who acts in an effeminate or over dramatic way referred to as camp?
A Blessed if I know. That’s an inadequate response, I do realise, but it sums up pretty accurately the etymological state of play. I can give the background, though, plus some theories.
The adjective first appears in print in 1909, in J Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era, in which he says it refers to “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis”, which are used by “persons of exceptional want of character”, by which I take it he means homosexuals.
He suggested it came from the French, perhaps because all things risqué were considered to be imports from across the Channel. Eric Partridge, on the other hand, was sure that it was natively English, from a dialect word camp or kemp, meaning rough or uncouth. Anthony Burgess has argued that it might be derived from a literal camp, as in a military or mining camp, in which the all-male society might lead gay men to advertise their availability through an exaggerated pseudo-femininity. It might be from a slang use of camp to mean a male brothel, though that term is probably of later date and derived from it. Those theories take you as near to the true origin as you’re likely to get.
As a side note, though camp still has close associations with the gay world, another sense has grown up in the past half-century or so. It can now mean a sophisticated and knowing type of amusement, based on something deliberately artistically unsophisticated or self-consciously exaggerated and artificial in style. It’s an obvious enough extension of the older sense. Christopher Isherwood called it high camp in his novel The World in the Evening of 1954, in which he emphasised that “you’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it”. Susan Sontag famously wrote about this type in the Partisan Review in 1964; she said that the ultimate camp statement was “It’s good because it’s awful”.