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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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Apr. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-dra1.htm
Last modified: 3 April 1999.