a blog with cultural bulimia.

Saturday, January 17, 2004


''I was reading 'The Man Who Would Be Queen,' '' writes Patricia Dorfman of Sunnyside, in the borough of Queens, New York, about a book by J. Michael Bailey subtitled ''The Science of Gender-Bending.'' (The title is a play on Rudyard Kipling's story ''The Man Who Would Be King,'' and the subtitle is a pun on ''fender bender,'' a minor bump on your car that costs a bundle to fix. The name of the borough in which Ms. Dorfman lives is not a play on anything.)

''I realized I didn't know the origin of the expression drag queen,'' she continues, ''and I don't have the slightest idea why a drag race is called that. I am from the South, so I understand the use of 'she's draggin',' meaning 'tired,' or 'it's a drag,' referring to weight, I assume. I guess I could look it up.''

Why bother, when I'm right here at, and the query is about one of the most multi-meaninged words in the slanguage?

''We shall come in drag, which means men wearing women's costumes,'' is an O.E.D. citation dated 1870 from an English newspaper. Three years later, the fourth edition of J.C. Hotten's slang dictionary included drag, noting that ''a recent impersonation case led to the publication of the word in that sense.'' In 1909, the philologist J. Redding Ware provided a Victorian-era etymon: ''Petticoat or skirt used by actors when playing female parts. Derived from the drag of the dress, as distinct from the nondragginess of the trouser.'' The slanguist Eric Partridge reported that earlier, around 1850, the usage ''to flash the drag'' meant ''to wear women's clothes for immoral purposes (in drag, thus dressed).''

The verb to drag comes from the Old Norse dragga and Middle English drawen, ''to draw,'' specifically ''to haul with difficulty.'' The word became a noun when applied to a horse-drawn wagon, leading to a 1785 definition in Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: ''go on the drag, to follow a cart or wagon in order to rob it.''

It followed that a street on which many drags rolled became known as a drag, and in 1851 a man was jailed for a month for ''griddling in the main drag (singing in the high street).''

That brings us to the mid-19th century with a horse-drawn stagecoach called a drag, rattling along at top speed with a John Wayne character riding shotgun. And a short century later, in 1954, American Speech magazine noted, ''Drag, a race between two cars to determine which can accelerate faster.'' Here we are with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) drawing millions to drag strips even as drag queens drag drag into the mainstream. Great word.
Via NYTimes'On Language