In 2016, RuPaul Charles told Nightline that he didn’t think that his work would ever be truly mainstream. At the time, his competitive-reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race was airing on LGBTQ-focused cable network Logo, and the world’s most famous drag performer still didn’t think people took his work—or his show—seriously. “I haven’t been accepted in mainstream media outlets,” he said, “because the only ways they can actually have a conversation with me is to make fun of me, or [to] somehow make a joke about what I’m doing.”
Less than a year later, RuPaul’s Drag Race had moved to VH1, and even Saturday Night Live was acknowledging its outsized role in the cultural imagination with a sketch that was one giant bit of fan service. “You have to serve complete body,” as one butch auto mechanic explained to his coworkers in the scene. “Tuck, hip pads—the face has to be beat for filth. The whole picture is fishy realness.”
In fact, since that Nightline interview, Drag Race, which returns tonight for its tenth official season, has won four Emmys. After making the leap to VH1, the show more than doubled its viewership and has gained a huge audience—enough to support all kinds of fans, many of them outside of the queer community. It takes pains to educate viewers about drag history. And increasingly, it’s serving as a linguistic vector, introducing drag slang in pop culture at large.
If you’re new to drag culture, watching Drag Race—which debuted in 2009 and is part America’s Next Top Model, part Project Runway, and part SNL—can feel a little like stepping into unknown linguistic territory. In watching queens serve any and all manner of realness, viewers are absorbing an argot that has birthed everything from “realness” to “kiki” to “spilling the tea.” And unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past few years, you’ve likely been “yas, queen!”-ed into oblivion via Broad City, 2 Dope Queens, or the umpteen million GIFs that celebrate the full-throated celebration.
Yet, for many, that slang—”work,” “gagging,” “eleganza,” “hunty”—has been stripped of valuable context. Borrowing and stealing language, especially from communities of color, has been going on for a long time. (Look no further than the long history of hip-hop slang crossing over and ultimately finding its way into QVC watches.) And the vernacular of drag culture has been absorbed so quickly that few even know where the terms originated.
Drag Herstory Lesson
Though “yas,” the word of the moment, has undergone the most scrutiny, it has still become synonymous with hetero women. Urban Dictionary, for example, defines it as “An annoying expression used by girls expressing extreme liking.”
In fact, “yas” was used decades ago, as seen in the iconic 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Considered by many to be the holy grail of drag films, as well as a piece of ephemera from a largely lost generation, Paris is Burning is an essential study in drag language—filmed over the course of seven years in the black and Latinx underground queer ball scene in New York City.
However, while the Paris is Burning-era of performers are often credited with coming up with this terminology, it actually began with drag balls that date as far back as the 1890s, says William Leap, a professor of anthropology at American University and a scholar of gay language.
The best description of these events may come from Langston Hughes, who famously attended a 1920s Hamilton Club Lodge Ball in Harlem as the guest of cosmetics heiress A’Lelia Walker. “It is the ball where men dress as women and women dress as men,” he wrote in his essay “Spectacles in Color”:
During the height of the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem, it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes [sic] and box-back suits […] Prizes are given to the most gorgeously gowned of the whites and Negroes who, powdered, wigged and rouged, mingle and compete for the awards.
“These were splendiferous events,” Leap says of the drag balls. “You were running into people from all over a 400-mile radius and you mix and you talk and you listen. You ended up taking home a hangover and six new ways of talking.”
Drag became a linguistic sponge in queer communities of color. “A lot of drag forms started among African American drag queens, which then spread and became widely appropriated,” says Rusty Barrett, a linguistics professor at the University of Kentucky and author of From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures. “African American women in particular were symbolic of a strong femininity, and became a way for gay men to claim femininity in a stance against straight ideas of masculinity.”
The expressions that drag held onto reflected the same flair that gay men were looking for in the mid-20th century when they picked up French words to gain a certain je ne sais quoi. (“Miss Piggy spoke 1940s gay, elite English,” Leap says.) It also mirrors aspects of Polari, a form of intense slang that gay men in the UK used before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967—a mix of Italian, Yiddish, and Romani that, like drag’s vernacular, was used to help identify other members of the embattled subculture, and even encrypt their conversations.
As drag pageants started up in the 1970s, performers once again began intermingling and blending slang as they had for the drag balls in the 1920s. By the time Jennie Livingston started filming Paris is Burning, drag culture was a firmly established subculture with a vibrant history and a very particular vocabulary.
Drag’s position in pop culture changed in the 1990s. Vogueing—the stylized dance based on fashion shows and magazine poses—was the first trend to get snatched. Inspired by dancers in the underground gay scene, Madonna hired drag ball regulars to teach her how to do it and released her song “Vogue” in 1990. (It’s long been considered an unforgivable theft, even though it launched careers for several queer dancers.) Paris is Burning premiered in 1991; two years later, RuPaul Charles blossomed from the underground NYC club scene with his hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work),” which cemented Ru’s status as the world’s most famous queen.
Giving You Life
Because drag lingo mixes so many subcultures, it can be hard to parse which terms came from where. “Reading,” for example, can be traced back to African American women in the 1950s; “kiki,” an onomatopoeia for laughter, specifically comes from the queer black and Latinx community. Regardless, it was easy to think for a long time that drag’s specific, unique influence on language would remain unknown to most who used it.
Young, cis women seem to have been seduced by it the most. That alone is little surprise: That demographic is known for leading the charge on linguistic trends. Drag has a language of resilience and snark, even as it embraces its feminine side. It can be emphatic or emotional or guarded. It’s giving you side-eye or props or a scoff.
For those reasons, it’s also boomed online. Internet culture loves conveying meaning in a pithy, interesting way and, as Leap puts it, “drag language appeals to affect.” It’s the same reason emojis have become popular: It carries a certain depth, it’s evocative, and it’s funny. In the age of the meme, drag lingo goes far.
And all of this comes at a time when gender fluidity is not only becoming accepted, but cool. “I think that people are attracted to the freedom of it,” says Jeremy Calder, a drag performer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado’s department of linguistics. “A lot of people may be embracing gender nonconformity because of the freedom it represents. One of the manifestations of that is the drag queen, and language is definitely a part of it.”
Is it problematic? Well … yas. Drag isn’t just about queerness or femininity, but about race and marginalization. For all of the camp associated with drag, it’s a nuanced art and a political statement with a lot of complicated history behind it. “There’s something positive about normalizing something that was once seen as shameful,” says Calder. “On the other hand, it can erase the origin. Misappropriation comes when people lose sight of its history, and when it becomes a commodity that the originators don’t benefit from.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that a vocabulary of resistance has been co-opted because it’s sparkly. As bell hooks put it in her essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. Cultural taboos around sexuality and desire are transgressed and made explicit as the media bombards folks with a message of difference no longer based on the white supremacist assumption that ‘blondes have more fun.’” As with hip-hop culture, there is a danger in erasing the people who created it—and now, the secret language that bound drag performers together decades ago is used by people who don’t know them, don’t remember them, and don’t care about their legacy.
Language isn’t the only thing for which drag culture is responsible, but not credited—like the sudden popularity of lip syncing, long the bread and butter of queens trying to make a buck on the club scene. Or the contouring trend that many believe was pioneered by the Kardashians, but which began with queens trying to emphasize or diminish certain features of their face. But language is a particularly slippery, resilient thing.
“There’s always been a reinventing of terminology because of appropriation by white or straight communities,” Barrett says. “Terms repeatedly borrowed from young African American speech, for example, lose their ability to convey African American identity. So they come up with a new word. Drag queens will come up with another way of saying the same thing that’s new and innovative and a clear marker of drag identity.”
So cling to the lingo if you want to—but, like a lizard dropping its tail, it’s already regenerating, starting with the queens in the clubs, on the pageant circuit, and talking amongst each other online. Gag today, gone tomorrow.