The history of drag queen slang

Ted Mentele, Editor in Didactics at language learning app Babbel reveals the debt much of our modern slang owns to LGBT people of colour. 

A lot of everyday language has its roots in subculture and thanks to the popularity of shows like Paris Is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race, queer slang has become more and more for the masses. But when you “throw shade” by saying someone’s face looks “busted”, or celebrate your friend’s engagement by yelling “yassss kween,” you should know that you’re referencing LGBT and African American history—both of which are rich in exclusion and oppression.

The drag scene as we know it began in Harlem, New York, with the strong female representatives of this largely African American population being referenced by the queer community as a stance against traditional masculinity.

Many forms of drag originated with drag queens of colour, so it’s maybe no surprise that the slang originated here too. Terms like “reading” and “spilling tea” were appropriated from their use by these women in the 50s. “Spilling tea” (to tell the truth about something juicy or scandalous) for example, comes from the idea of having old Southern tea parties to gossip behind people's back.

In the 90s, the documentary Paris Is Burning introduced the slang used in the drag balls of 80s New York City to popular culture. Drag vernacular like “throwing shade” and “vogueing” entered the mainstream and the latter was made even more famous by Madonna’s hit, aptly titled Vogue. The problem that arose was that this was a scene populated by both the LGBT community and people of colour, so many criticised the use of the slang and appropriation of the scene as profiting off of marginalised cultures.

Cut to 2020 and RuPaul’s Drag Race is really taking drag culture to the masses. Slang is a way that groups use to bond, identifying with each other through a similar use of language. When people outside of the group start to use these slang phrases and words, at best it can be insensitive, at worst it can be a willful way to mock, discriminate against or take advantage of them.

"Many forms of drag originated with drag queens of colour, so it’s maybe no surprise that the slang originated here too"

However, the opposite can also be true. Dialect fusion can, in fact, be beneficial to marginalised groups as it signifies the mingling of these social groups—take Yiddish for example, which has seen terms like “schmooze” and “chutzpah” enter common usage.

When straight people (or anyone outside of the queer community) use the terminology they have learnt from shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race or Queer Eye correctly, and in good humour, the result can be a positive cultural fusion. To help educate, we’ve looked at some of these show’s most commonly used phrases and explored their roots, history and culture:

 

Mama (Mamma / Momma / Mawma)

Mama as used within Ru Paul's Drag Race

"Mama" is usually used as a term of endearment and respect to an older, more respected queen or person.

When a queen first embarks on the world of drag, she needs someone to turn to for guidance, support, and of course, makeup tips. Often they are taken under the wing of a more seasoned queen known as a "mother", or "drag mother" and may even take on the last name of their mother or wider drag family.

Drag families are vital because, in some cases, an individual may have faced criticism or nonacceptance from their own families. Your drag mother is your chosen family, who accepts you for who you choose to be.

 

T (Tea/Tee)

housewives GIF about spilling the tea

Used to refer to gossip, news, information or true facts. Often said in the phrase "no tea, no shade" to mean "no disrespect".

This can also be rephrased to "all tea, all shade" in order to make it clear that the speaker doesn’t care if what they are saying has or will offend.

 

Throwing shade

Alyssa Edwards says "no tea, no shade"

To "throw shade" is to openly insult, or be rude about someone (to burn and scorch another with criticism and "shade"). As such, to be described as "shady" is to be seen as untrustworthy, or insincere.

The phrase became famous following its use in the iconic 90’s New York documentary, Paris Is Burning, which explored the drag balls of 1980s New York City—a scene that was also populated by people of colour.

 

Read

Ru Paul talking about reading

To "read" is to openly criticise and expose a person’s flaws. Often done so in a hyperbolic and overly dramatic way and unlike "throwing shade" everyone tends to be in on the joke.

Again this is another term that made its way into mainstream drag culture via Paris is Burning but can be traced back further to usage by African American women in the early 1950s.

 

Kiki

Clip from the Scissor Sisters song Let's Have a Kiki

A "kiki" is a social gathering, whereby the primary purpose is to relax and gossip. Kikis are places of acceptance and have long been associated with the LGBT+ community.

In RuPaul, the queens often kiki whilst getting ready for the runway, sharing stories and airing feelings.

 

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