The Grammarphobia Blog

Drag strip

Q: I’ve been trying to find a reliable etymology for “drag” in reference to men who wear women’s clothes. The ones I’ve read seem fanciful only.

A: This sense of “drag” originated in the 19th century as a theatrical term, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The slang dictionary, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says the term originally referred to women’s clothing worn on the stage by a male actor.

Random House doesn’t explain why “drag” was first used in this context, but Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the original theatrical use “stressed the drag of a long dress along the floor, as opposed to tight-fitting trousers.”

Although the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t directly support Cassell’s here, its citations for this sense of “drag” are in a section referring to “something that drags, or hangs heavily.”

The OED defines “drag” in this sense as “feminine attire worn by a man; also, a party or dance attended by men wearing feminine attire; hence gen., clothes, clothing. slang.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) use the term more broadly to include men’s clothing worn by women.

Interestingly, the earliest citation for the usage in the OED refers to men dressing in women’s clothes for a party, not for a play, raising questions about the theatrical origin of the term.

We’ve expanded on the citation, which comes from the May 29, 1870, issue of Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper: “We shall come in drag, which means men wearing women’s costumes.”

Although most of the OED citations refer to men dressing in women’s clothing, some use “drag” in reference to wearing odd or unusual clothing.

For example, a 1966 citation from The Listener, a defunct BBC magazine, describes Laurence Olivier as “doing his Othello voice and attired painstakingly in Arab drag.”

By the way, Cassell’s says “drag” wasn’t used “in a homosexual context” until the 20th century, and published references in the OED support this.

The first OED citation that suggests a gay link is from the Feb. 13, 1927, issue of the Sunday Express: “A drag is a rowdy party attended by abnormal men dressed in scanty feminine garments, singing jazz songs in high falsetto voices.”

(The etymologist Michael Quinion has tracked down some evidence of an earlier gay sighting, but we’ll stick with the OED for now. If you’d like to decide for yourself, check out his research.)

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