The Grammarphobia Blog

Light in the loafers

Q: Growing up in the ‘50s, I recall hearing “light in the loafers” as a term of derision for gay men. An Internet search turned up several possible explanations, all plausible, none definitive. Have you ever wrestled with “light in the loafers”?

A: Like many expressions, “light in the loafers” is a bit slippery to wrestle with, but here goes.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2d ed.) has only a brief entry, describing the expression as ‘50s American slang and adding that “the image is the stereotyped effeminate male, tripping along.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which defines it as effeminate or homosexual, lists a series of references for the expression dating from 1967 to 1996.

However, the first Random House citation, which comes from the Dictionary of American Slang (1967) by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner, describes the expression as “fairly common” since around 1955.

The expression, by the way, hasn’t been used only to mock gay men. It’s also been used as a euphemism by gay men themselves, as in this 1989 reference from the ABC-TV move Rock Hudson: “We’d say, ‘Is he musical?’ Never gay…. Sometimes ‘Light in the loafers.’”

Both the Cassell’s and Random House entries include what they describe as a similar expression for a gay or effeminate man: “light on his (or “her”) feet.” But I’ve never heard this phrase used in any other way than to describe someone who’s graceful.

If you’ve googled “light in the loafers,” you know that it’s still being used today. The most recent Random House citation is from the Feb. 7, 1996, issue of New York Press, an alternative weekly: “The garment business is popularized by citizens who are ‘light in the loafers.’”

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