What is the Origin of the Word ‘Drag’?

So, a friend of mine was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and messaged me because he didn’t know why ‘drag,’ the act of men dressing as women, was called drag. I had to admit that I wasn’t certain either. He lamented that Google was no help and my cursory search confirmed the fact. I turned to my two most trusted companions of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Below is what each have to say on the matter of ‘drag.’


drag, n

  1. Something that drags, or hangs heavily, so as to impede motion.
  2. Feminine attire worn by a man; also, a party or dance attended by men wearing feminine attire; hence gen., clothes, clothing. slang.


1870   Reynolds’s Newsp. 29 May 5/5   We shall come in drag.

1870   London Figaro 23 June 3/4   Not quite so low..as going about in ‘drag’.

1887   Referee 24 July 3/1   I don’t like to see low coms. in drag parts.

1927   Sunday Express 13 Feb. 5/5   A drag is a rowdy party attended by abnormal men dressed in scanty feminine garments, singing jazz songs in high falsetto voices.

1942   M. McCarthy Company she Keeps (1943) iii. 80   A kind of masquerade of sexuality, like the rubber breasts homosexuals put on for drags.

1959   C. MacInnes Absolute Beginners 27   My Spartan hair-do and my teenage drag and all.

1959   J. Osborne World Paul Slickey ii. x. 80   You would never have the fag Of dressing up in drag You’d be a woman at the weekend.

1960   20th Cent. Mar. 255   Bad Taste, exemplified by..Henry Kendall in drag. This is by no means the first time that Mr. Kendall has appeared to reverse his sex.

1966   Listener 23 June 918/3   Laurence Olivier, doing his Othello voice and attired painstakingly in Arab drag.

1967   Spectator 14 July 54/1   The gear shops flip their decor as often as they do the pop tunes blaring out the newest hits as you try on the latest ‘drag’.

1968   R. Baker (title)    Drag, a history of female impersonation on the stage.


Green’s Dictionary of Slang

drag, n. 1

  1. in the context of clothing, which ‘drags along’ the ground, and ext. uses [orig. theatrical use, which stressed thedrag of a long dress along the floor, as opposed to tight-fitting trousers. The first OED citations (1870) imply fancy dress; gay refs. not overt until 20C].

(a) female dress as worn by men, but not in a homosexual context, e.g. on stage.

1870Reynold’s 29 May n.p.: ‘Police Proceedings.’ […] We shall come in drag, which means wearing women’s costumes [F&H]. 1909J. WarePassing Eng. of the Victorian Era 117/1: Drag (Theat.) Petticoat or skirt used by actors when playing female parts. Derived from the drag of the dress, as distinct from the non-dragginess of the trouser. c.1925R. McAlmonMiss Knight (1963) 62: I wuz at the Y.M.C.A. – in drag you know – some outfit I had too, stars and spangles and jewels all over me. 1932 ‘R. Scully’ Scarlet Pansy 136: Miss Savoy, the notorious impersonator came sailing by, in a grand drag. 1949L. HughesTambourines to Glory Prologue: I put on drag sometimes. 1952Lait & MortimerUSA Confidential 93: [It] specializes in shows in drag with men made up as women. 1961Rigney & SmithReal Bohemia xi: He became known as […] ‘Margaret Mead in drag’. 1965K. MarloweMr Madam (1967) 31: I played ‘house’ with Connie and dolled up in my drags. 1972D. JenkinsSemi-Tough 175: What’d he say? The Catholics were Baptists in drag? 1982H. BeatonOutside In I ii: They all looked like men. Even the screws. I thought they were men in drag. 1997D. FarsonNever a Normal Man 170: Plucked eyebrows, the black mascara and the scarlet gown worn on special occasions, the only sign of the ‘drag’ deplored by the Australians in the train. 2001N. ToschesWhere Dead Voices Gather (ms.) 296: The song was being performed by the blackface vaudeville team of Baker and Farrell – one of them in proto-Jemima drag – when it was heard by Chris Rutt, a man in search of a name for his new self-rising pancake mix.

(b) female dress as worn by homosexual males; also male dress as worn by lesbians.

a.1870J. Fiske letter in Pearsall Worm in Bud (1969) 463: He tells me you are living in drag […] the thought of you – Lais and Antinous in one – is ravishing. 1873Sl. Dict. 149: Drag feminine attire worn by men. A recent notorious impersonation case led to the publication of the word in that sense. 1909J. WarePassing Eng. of the Victorian Era117/1: Drag […] Also [the name] given to feminine clothing by eccentric youths when dressing up in skirts. 1914Jackson& HellyerVocab. Criminal Sl. 30: drag […] Amongst female impersonators on the stage and men of dual sex instincts ‘drag’ denotes female attire donned by a male. Download DocumentDownload Document: ‘All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight’. 1927M. WestDrag (1997) Act II: I’ve got the most gorgeous new drag. Black satin, very tight, with a long train of rhinestones. 1932 ‘R. Scully’ Scarlet Pansy 166: They visited Atlantic City in time to attend the famous Iceman’s Ball, noted far and wide for the fashionable drags displayed. [Ibid.] 186: Fay had decided to be brilliant and go as a queen. She had with her a drag – ‘Something gorgeous, simply devastating,’ Percy Chichi called it. 1948K. WilliamsDiaries 31 Jan. 21: It was a very good show — quite gay in parts, with some lovely, oh luvly camping and drag! 1959W. BurroughsNaked Lunch (1968) 218: Some of these girls […] are really boys. In uh drag I believe is the word??? 1971D. GoinesDopefiend (1991) 266: Donna Jean, a sissy, who worked in drag. 1987R. CampbellAlice in La-La Land (1999) 214: Seventy, eighty per cent of the hookers are faggot transvestites or homos in drag. 1990Tupper & WortleyAus. Prison Sl. Gloss. [Internet] Drag. 2. To dress ‘in drag’, i.e. for male to don women’s clothing. 2003K. CageGayle.

Green also notes further that the first usage which may be more familiar to modern readers comes in the 1920s.
(e) (US gay) a homosexual man dressed in female clothing, a drag queenn. (1).

1929T. GordonBorn to Be (1975) 218: Must I turn drag, eh? 1931B. NilesStrange Brother (1932) 210: The Drag Ball […] was a great masquerade party to which men went in fancy dress — went in the costumes of women. The men, so dressed, were called ‘drags’ […] The men dressed in what Harlem calles ‘drag,’ men in the garb of women. 1950Goldinet al. DAUL 61/2: Drag. […] 4. A man in feminine attire; feminine attire worn by a fag. 1963J. RechyCity of Night 286: My dear, the Most Fabulous Drags in the world go there […] and the simply butchest numbers. 1985K. VachaQuiet Fire77: This bitch drag screwed me. 1994G. IndianaRent Boy 67: Big drags in sequins doing bad lip-sync.


Here’s the article cited by both OED and Green’s from 29 May 1870, reporting on the Boulton and Park trial. According to both sources, this is the first appearance of ‘drag’ in written English. The relevant parts of the below testimony say as much. Click here to read whole article (credit: British Library Newspapers)

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So there you have it, internet. A bit of information where the term ‘drag’ comes from. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s better than what’s out there at the moment. If words are your thing, check out my other post about all the definitions of pornography and obscenity.


A Simple Tip For Drafting

It’s been a while since I last posted, but I just needed to share this stupid simple technique I’ve been using while drafting my dissertation chapters that has helped me a lot. You ready for it. It’s quick:

Change the scenery.

Yep. That’s it. If you’re drafting on Scrivener (like me), export your work to a different program. I find myself getting stale staring at the same screen all the time. Sometimes a change of scenery can re-energize my writing. Even better? Print it out and edit by hand. I almost always do this. There’s something very powerful about not staring at a screen all the time. That’s it. Just something that has been very helpful to me, especially recently.


Dissertation/Academic Progress 25-31 January

Word Count 25 January: 12,823

Word Count 31 January: 13,424

Other Academic Progress: Handed chapter to supervisor! Had meeting with supervisor! Made a research plan for upcoming archives research trip! Fell back in love with the exclamation point!

I think the Flaming Lips are an appropriate tune for this week.

Dissertation/Academic Progress 18 January-25 January

Word count 18 January: 12,326

Word count 24 January: 12,823

Other Academic Progress: Advised a prospective PhD student on applying to UBC. Pored over archives lists for upcoming research trip. This is hard work.

I forgot to add a music video this week! So, better late than never, please remember that groove really is in the heart.


The Sins Of The Cities Of The Plain by Jack Saul. This review is by John Cook


The Sins of the Cities

The Sins of the Cities of the Plain

by Jack Saul (Anon)

For anyone interested in this book (and it is freely available as a .pdf on the net) I offer the enclosed reference (https://graduable.com/2013/04/15/victorian-pornography-part-vi-jack-saul/) as an interesting and scholarly examination of just who Jack Saul may/might be. Briefly, there was a Jack Saul who appeared as a witness in the Cleveland St trial of 1885 as a prosecution witness presenting himself as a ‘maryanne’ and being very open about his lifestyle. The best guess is that this book was anonymous and Jack Saul was used as a pseudonym with instant recognition among the cognoscenti. It was used again in the 1883 ‘Letters from Laura and Eveline’ where Jack is Eveline. Group readers may remember looking at ‘Fanny and Stella’ based on the same material and period.

This original source material can be viewed as anything from a frank…

View original post 213 more words

Dissertation/Academic Progress 4 January – 10 January

Chapter Word Count 4 January: 11,183

Chapter Word Count 10 January: 11, 731

Other Progress: First week of class. Did some reading. Met my students. I will mold them after my own image.

Here’s a good song by a young singer/songwriter that is making a name for himself somewhere down in California to get your week going.

Who’s Accountable for My Productivity?: New Semester Edition


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Right, so, earlier today I opened my dissertation for the first time this year. I leave out the insignificant detail of the exact date it was last opened for obvious reasons. It just made me realize I’ve a metric shit tonne of work left to do before this thing is done and dusted. I like to think that I’m poised to have the most productive semester yet, with a research trip planned and other exciting advances in my field. This got me to thinking that, if I am to defend in fall 2016 (before the US puts Donald Trump in the White House, cementing the ultimate demise of that mighty empire), I’ll need to have a fire lit under my ass.

However, the supply of literary kindling and kerosene is in my possession so I’m going to do this pretend thing as if somebody is holding me accountable. Essentially, I’m turning Graduable.com into a progress tracker. I’ll probably not post much of any substance for the foreseeable future. Rather, I’m planning on posting my academic accomplishments for public scrutiny at the beginning of each week. Among academic accomplishments I include the following:

  • Any and all writing on my dissertation
  • Editing of same
  • CV work (editing, going to conferences, giving talks)
  • Article writing/editing
  • Reading/researching
  • Any academic blogging I might happen to do
  • Other things as they come to me

So, the pretend part is that I have to suspend my disbelief that anybody other than me (and my supervisory committee) care about my progress. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to post my successes and failures right here each week. Here’s to hoping the Valley of Shit doesn’t get me.



PS- Here is the song “Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure. I don’t know why this seems appropriate, but here it is. Maybe I ought to put this photo of Robert Smith judging me above my desk.



Exciting News About Jack Saul

A man by the name of Jack Saul is a large part of my research. He was an Irish prostitute in London and the subject of the 1881 ‘memoir’ Sins of the Cities of the Plain (although in that text he claims to be from Suffolk) and appeared again in the Cleveland Street Scandal trial a decade later. In the course of my research I could find no evidence that anyone called Jack Saul actually existed and wondered whether the name could have been some sort of invention. Well, it turns out that Jack Saul was indeed a real person and playwright Glenn Chandler has found archival evidence of this. I have been in touch with Mr. Chandler and I simply cannot wait to see what he has found.

For the time being he has given us a sneak peek at his findings as well as the musical he is planning about the life of John ‘Jack’ Saul. Have a look at the website he has set up in anticipation of his book and play.


Definitions of Pornography and Obscenity


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As I’ve been working my way through my dissertation I have, of course, come across plenty of definitions of pornography and obscenity. I thought one day I ought to start collecting them so, here they are. I am always adding to this list. I think it makes for fascinating reading. A note: the entries in the list are in chronological order, more or less, because that’s how I like to work.

I’m not too sure what I’m doing with this list or what I’m hoping it will show me, but I think it’s interesting nevertheless. It’s just one of those things that we do.

If you’ve got a definition you’d like to suggest, please send me the pertinent details: justin.ohearn@alumni.ubc.ca

“pornography (n.) – The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.” (OED)

R. V. Hicklin 1868 ‘test of obscenity’
“I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (Justice Cockburn, as part of the decision of this case)

Definition of obscenity – U.K. ca. 1959. Updated Obscene Publications Act. Argument for artistic merit.
“‘For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a  whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.’…The Act also provided booksellers with the defence of ‘innocent dissemination’ and publishers and authors with the defence of literary or other merit.” (Hyde 196)

“I know it when I see it” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 1964.

“‘A thing is obscene if, considered as a whole, its predominant appeal is to prurient interests, i.e. a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion, and if it goes substantially beyond customary limits of candour in description or representation of such matters.’ The Court went on further to define obscene matter as ‘material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.’” (Hyde History of Pornography 185) [1964]

“…it is the function of pornography to stun and numb the reader, and the function of erotic writing to wake him up” (Frye The Secular Scripture) [1976]

Definitions of obscenity – U.S. court cases.
“‘A thing is obscene if, considered as a whole, its predominant appeal is to prurient interests, i.e. a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion, and if it goes substantially beyond customary limits of candour in description or representation of such matters.’ The Court went on further to define obscene matter as ‘material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.’” (Hyde 185)

“the written or visual presentation in a realistic form of any genital or sexual behavior with a deliberate violation of existing and widely accepted moral and social taboos.” (Wagner Eros Revived [1988] qtd. in Hunt 25 [1998])

“If we take pornography to be the explicit depiction of sexual organs and sexual practices with the aim of arousing sexual feelings, then pornography was almost always an adjunct to something else until the middle of or end of the eighteenth century” (Hunt Invention of Pornography 10) [1996]

“[Pornography is] not a thing but a concept…and imaginary scenario of danger and rescue.” (Kendrick Secret Museum xiii)

“First, what seems pornographic to one person will not necessarily seem so to another. Second, pornography is not monolithic: representation occurs in many media, and it adopts many forms and genres. Third, no group, gendered or otherwise, has a monopoly on sexual expression or representation. Fourth, our social, esthetic, political, legal, and economic attitudes toward pornography both affect and draw on complex responses to gender and sexuality. Fifth, pornography, an attempt at communication, conveys a host of messages, many of them contradictory. Some of those messages, in fact, are ancient.” (Slade Pornography in America)[2000]

“I use the word pornography as an umbrella term to cover a wide variety of representations including literature, drawings, and photographs…in spit of the single predominant theme, pornography takes a variety of forms and has a wide range of foci and uses; it does more than just titillate. I consider as pornography work that people wrote, published, printed, legislated, and collected as pornography…and varies as a culture and the symbolic meanings in the culture evolve” (Sigel Governing 4) [2002]

“By stipulating a universal definition of pornography, ‘pornography is,’ [Katherine] MacKinnon and [Andrea] Dworkin in effect ignore the historical process through which pornography as we now know it comes into being. In order to create a strong argument for the present, the antipornography feminists flatten pornography into a monolithic history of the oppression of women” (Sigel Governing 6) [2002]

“For clarity, my definition of ‘pornography’ is material that contains graphic description of sexual organs and/or action (for example, detailed descriptions of masturbation, or anal, oral and penetrative sex) written with the prime intention of sexually exciting the reader. Pornography is not merely a series of repetitive scenarios, but a particular way of writing to fulfil a particular function, to create the desired effect of physical pleasure…erotic (rather than erotica) material can therefore be defined as that which is descriptive of amatory or sexual desire made through insinuation. This is generally written to amuse rather than sexually stimulate, unlike pornographic material which is more explicit and carries that intension.” (Peakman Mighty Lewd 6 – 7) [2003]

“Attempts to define pornography, for example, are uniquely destined to fail by becoming an example of the very thing defined. There is no catalog of pornography, no legislation of pornography that is not pornographic in and of itself…the act of taking interest in any object undermines the subject’s difference from that object” (Doyle 9 Sex Objects) [2006]

“In plain language, for something to be pornography, it has to give clear details of people behaving in a sexual manner, especially by emphasizing their genitals (for women in our culture, this includes breasts). Second, it must concentrate on these sexual parts and activities for one main reason: to get people sexually arouse. Third, and most important, pornography should seem ‘dirty.’ Users are supposed to feel that the people who made it knew they were doing something immoral, and that by reading, looking at or listening to porn, consumers are also behaving badly. Pornography is shameful, a secret pleasure to be roped off from the rest of our lives” (Nathan Pornography 15) [2007]

“Whatever else it is, pornography is big business.” (Maes & Levinson Art and Pornography) [2012]

“I don’t think it’s worth defining. It’s that stuff that you find when you put ‘porn’ into Google. Why bother defining it?” (Gail Dines, anti-pornography campaigner, on BBC4 programme “Pornography: What Do We Know?”)