The Surprising History of Queer Words You Use Every Day

Terms like "twink," "drag," and "coming out" are fixtures of our LGBTQ lexicon. But where did they come from?

Main image: A 20th-century drag ball, where the phrase “coming out” may have originated.

Have you ever stopped to think about why the word drag is drag?

Every word we speak has a history, but the meanings behind our lavender lexicon are particularly interesting. From 1920s slang about sex workers to former slaves having drag balls in the 1880s, the queer words we use have a rich history that is worth delving into, especially during LGBTQ History Month.

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A photo of a drag queen from the early 20th century.

Drag

Though Mama Ru herself has said “drag” was originally an acronym in Shakespearean times that stood for “Dressed Resembling A Girl,” there isn’t any evidence to back up that myth. (The history of men wearing dresses for performances certainly goes back to Shakespearean times and earlier, though.)

It actually seems like the word drag first appeared in reference to male actors’ petticoats when they played women in plays in the mid-19th century. The first man known to use this word in the sense we know it as today was William Dorsey Swann, who called himself a “queen of drag” in the 1880s. Swann was born into slavery in Maryland and, post-emancipation, organized secret balls for other formerly enslaved men in Washington, D.C., to dress in dresses.

Camp

In 1671, French playwright Molière introduced the term se camper, a French verb meaning to pose in an exaggerated fashion. He once wrote, “Camp about on one leg. Put your hand on your hip. Wear a furious look. Strut about like a drama king.” Hence the “camp pose” with a hip out and a relaxed knee was named.

However, it may not have been the French se camper but instead the Italian campare (to make something stand out) that gave us “camp.” It also may have come from the gay coded language Polari. Polari, which drew on words from other languages including Italian and French, was used primarily among gay men in the United Kingdom in the 1950s as a secret way to communicate when homosexuality was a crime. Polari dictionaries show camp as a word that means effeminate.

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Twink

Twinkies are small, smooth, cream-filled snacks that are not nutritious but are fun in the moment — and may (offensively) be what inspired the slang term “twink” to refer to guys who are also, well, small and smooth.

It’s also possible that the 1920s British slang word “twank” evolved into twink. “Twank” referred to a client of gay male prostitutes or “a man willing and ready to become any dominant man’s ‘partner.’”

Sapphic

The word “sapphic,” just like the word lesbian, honors the ancient Greek poet Sappho (c. 630 BCE–c. 570 BCE) of the island of Lesbos, who wrote of her love and lust for other women. Her surviving works, mostly fragments, are some of the oldest examples of women writing about loving other women in existence.

Sappho created the “sapphic stanza,” an ancient Greek lyric poetry form consisting of four lines. Here is a translated example:

My tongue cracks, it breaks.
Lightning races under my skin, a delicate fire.
My eyes see naught, my ears hear naught
but a roar.

Come out of the closet

Much like young ladies being introduced to high society at debutante balls, gay men in the 1920s made their debuts at drag balls in cities like New York, Chicago, and Baltimore. “Coming out” was borrowed from these society balls by ballroom culture and was about joining society more than coming out of hiding. Before the 1920s there is no record of the term “coming out of the closet” in queer culture. Instead, gay people “wore a mask” or “took off the mask,” or men “wore their hair up” or “let their hair down.”

The term “closet” may have come from the phrase “having a skeleton in the closet,” or a secret. This term surfaced around the 1960s and was born of shame (e.g. “closet case”) instead of a celebration of joining peers. The first National Coming Out Day was celebrated on October 11, 1988, with a logo famously illustrated by Keith Haring. Now we know that there are varying degrees of being in or out of the closet, and that coming out is a lifelong, constant process, not a one-time exit.

Next time you use one of these words, you’ll be able to remember where it came from and break out some fun trivia. To learn more, check out The Queens’ English: The LGBTQIA+ Dictionary of Lingo and Colloquial Phrases by Chloe O. Davis and Paul Baker’s Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.

Sarah Prager is the author of three books on LGBTQ+ history and her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, and many other outlets.
@Sarah_Prager