Q From Ali Lemer: What is the origin of the term in drag? Someone online said that it came from theatrical production notes of yore, where it stood for ‘DRessed As a Girl’, since primarily men were doing it then, but that sounds like the hogwash about Port Out, Starboard Home and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I’d like to see you prove her wrong.
A That’s a delightful story, showing once again how inventive people are when faced with a conundrum. 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.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking; Peely-wally; Draw a line in the sand; Porphyrogeniture; Set one’s cap at; Epicaricacy; Furthest and farthest; Hide one’s light under a bushel; Jentacular.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!