Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


The theory that queer culture is determined by the structures and labels imposed upon it by an external mainstream culture (the so-called 'hegemony') is belied by the existence of queer language. Historical evidence shows that a significantly large proportion of labels arise from within or from the margins surrounding a queer subculture – that they are terms indigenous to queer culture, self-generated and self-cultivated. Perhaps one reason why scientists scrupulously avoid using this slang is because they realize that slang arises at least partly from within the minority group and to some extent empowers it. Homosexuals have not found it very difficult to call themselves fairies, queers, or faggots, whereas they do not generally call themselves perverts, sexual psychopaths or homosexuals (though they have used the term homos). To suggest that homosexuals do not constitute an ethnic group because they lack a distinctive language is to blind oneself to a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Unfortunately most analyses of camp are based upon the compensation model: ‘camp changes the real, hostile world into a new one which is controllable and safe. . . . Camp was and is a way for gay men to re-imagine the world around them. It exaggerates and therefore diffuses real threats’ (Bronski 1984). Frankly, I hardly think that a camp writer like Ronald Firbank was concerned to make the world safe for homosexuals, or that the decorator Elsie de Wolfe was diffusing the threat of the Parthenon when she first saw it and exclaimed ‘It’s beige! My colour!’

Many theorists uncritically echo Bronski’s analysis that ‘"camp talk" – especially gay men referring to one another with women’s names or pronouns – evolved as a coded, protected way of speaking about one’s personal or sexual life. If one man were to be overheard at a public dinner table saying to another, "You’ll never guess what Mary said on our date last night," nothing would be thought of it.’ On the contrary, a moment’s thought ought to dispel this theory of the origins of camp talk: queers camped it up and referred to each other with women’s names almost entirely within a queer context in which no heterosexuals were present. It operated primarily within queer culture and functioned to cement the relations within queer culture. All of the camp talk of the eighteenth-century mollies, for example, was overheard by police constables who had infiltrated the molly houses; such talk was virtually unknown outside the confines of a molly house. Far too many theorists interpret gay culture as a strategy for coping with or undermining straight culture rather than as having cultural values for its own sake.

The vast bulk of queer slang is created by queers to communicate with one another. When a queer says ‘That queen over there is camping for jam’ (making a play for a young boy, cited by Duberman 1986) he is not employing a language imposed upon him by heterosexuals. The free and unself-conscious use of obscenity and slang is characteristic of working-class men and prostitutes, and the queer subculture often borrows terms from the cant of the criminal underworld, such as the term ‘bent’. In American prisons, a ‘pitcher’ (macho man) ‘hooks up’ (‘gets married’) with a ‘catcher’, usually the ‘punk’ rather than the ‘queen’, who is often ‘turned out’ by rape or the threat of rape. In female prisons the ‘femme’ or ‘mommy’ ‘make it’ (pair off) with the ‘stud broad’ or ‘daddy’. (S. Donaldson, ‘Prisons, Jails, and Reformatories’, EH) In memoirs of German queers imprisoned in the concentration camps we find not only Homos and 175-ers (referring to Paragraph 175 which criminalized homosexuality), but also indigenous queer-terms such as warmer Bruder (queer), Sittenstrolch (faggot), schwules Arschloch (queer arsehole) and Arschficker (arse-fucker) (Lautmann 1977).

Queer language is not something that is new to modern times. In ancient times the transgendered priests of the goddess Cotytto spoke an obscene lingo of their own. Many people recognize that Juvenal’s portrait of the priests of Cybele is virtually indistinguishable from a gaggle of outrageous queens in the 1940s or even 1970s, but even writers lacking Juvenal’s satirical bite document the existence of certain gestures and speech characteristics – queer language – among the galli:

One such gesture involved rolling the eyes and raising them toward the heavens . . . . Another consisted of holding the neck in a lilting or tilted manner. . . .The galli, like female hierodules and courtesans, were said to converse with the palms of their hands turned upward, a gesture depicted on figurines portraying female deities. They were also said to speak in shrill tones, to lisp, to giggle and whisper, to use obscene language, to employ women’s oaths, and to address each other in the feminine gender. Finally, the galli and other transgendered males were said to employ a verbal signal peculiar to them, the regkeis . . . commonly translated as ‘snort’. From Clement of Alexandria, who also suggests that the regkeis signal was nasal in character, we learn that the men employing this signal ‘make a sound in their nose like a frog’. The regkeis signal may have actually sounded more like heavy breathing or hissing. . . . Dio Chrysostom describes the regkeis as ‘a sort of password of their own.’ . . . The regkeis, while apparently inciting laughter in hostile males, was clearly employed with the intention of announcing to the listener one’s erotic desires. . . . Dio Chrysostom insists that, even more than appearance, the regkeis may reveal a man to be a cinaedus, a gender variant male engaging in same-sex eroticism. (Conner 1997)

It is worth noting the possible continuity of this tradition in the speech mannerisms of modern queens, too readily dismissed by the anti-essentialists. The speech of gay men has a broad range of pitch and animation, more like that of women than the monotone of straight men, ‘But there is also an aggressive, "bitchy" form of gay male intonation that has no precise equivalent among women,’ and older gay men remember using certain ‘tunes’ or special intonations to convey meaning when they told gay jokes (W. R. Dynes, ‘Language and Linguistics’, EH).

In the molly subculture of early eighteenth-century London, queer slang was a modification of thieves’ cant and prostitute slang (Norton 1992). As today, the mollies would ‘make Love to one another’, and they used other euphemisms such as ‘the pleasant Deed’ and ‘to do the Story’. They ‘swived’, as did heterosexuals, but also had more specific verbs for anal intercourse, such as ‘to indorse’, from contemporary boxing slang, and ‘caudle-making’ or ‘giving caudle’, from the Latin cauda, a tail. Later in the century, sodomites were called ‘backgammon players’ and ‘gentlemen of the back door’. Gay cruising grounds were called ‘the markets’, where the mollies went ‘strolling and caterwauling’. If they were lucky, they ‘picked up’ partners, or ‘trade’ (both terms are still in common use today). If luckier still, they would ‘make a bargain’ or agree to have sex (this derives from a rather obscure game known as ‘selling a bargain’). Another variation is ‘bit a blow’, equivalent to the modern phrase ‘score a trick’. To ‘put the bite’ on someone was to arrange for sex, possibly sex for money, derived from a contemporary phrase implying some sort of trickery, usually financial. Other recorded terms include ‘Battersea’d’ (probably a synonym for ‘clapped’), ‘brother’ with a special meaning, ‘cull’, ‘festival night’, ‘game of flats’ (lesbian sex), ‘Gany-boy’, ‘husband’, ‘madge culls’, ‘mameluke’, ‘Margery’, ‘marrying’, ‘Mary-Ann’, ‘molly cull’, ‘patapouf’, ‘pullet’, ‘queen/quean’, ‘queer’, ‘tail quarters’, and ‘wedding night’.

The most striking feature of the eighteenth-century ‘Female Dialect’ was that gay men christened one another with ‘Maiden Names’: Madam Blackwell, Miss Kitten, Miss Fanny Knight, Miss Irons, Moll Irons, Flying Horse Moll, Pomegranate Molly, Black Moll, China Mary, Primrose Mary, Orange Mary, Garter Mary, Pippin Mary (alias Queen Irons), Dip-Candle Mary, Small Coal Mary, Aunt Greer, Aunt May, Aunt England, Princess Seraphina the butcher, the Countess of Camomile, Lady Godiva, the Duchess of Gloucester, Orange Deb, Tub Nan, Hardware Nan, Old Fish Hannah and Johannah the Ox-Cheek Woman. The Maiden Names which the mollies assumed bore little relation to specific male-female role-playing in terms of sexual behaviour. Fanny Murray was ‘an athletic Bargeman’, Lucy Cooper was ‘an Herculean Coal-heaver’, Kitty Fisher was ‘a deaf tyre Smith’, ‘Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina, a Runner at a Police office; Black-eyed Leonora, a Drummer [of the Guards]; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; . . . and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer’.

Similar lists can be found in the queer subcultures of sixteenth-century Italy, seventeenth-century Portugal and Spain and France, and elsewhere. Dutchmen in the 1730s had a special way of speaking to one another which they called op zijn janmeisjes, ‘John girlish’ (Noordam 1989). Campy ‘queen talk’ can be found in the early eighteenth century (perhaps even earlier though the subtleties of humour make it hard to detect). The mollies in London would enquire of one another, ‘Where have you been you saucy Queen?’ and engage in banter: ‘O, Fie, Sir! – Pray, Sir. – Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? – I swear I’ll cry out. – You’re a wicked Devil. – And you’re a bold Face. – Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss!’ And the queens of Paris were camp in a recognizably modern mode: Says one to another while cruising in the Luxembourg gardens in 1737, ‘There’s somebody who looks like one. Let’s split up and see what this sister is all about’ (Rey 1985). Or again, when a young man did not respond to their advances, ‘they said to each other: Let him go, he doesn’t understand Latin.’

British camp language – polari – was very popular during the 1950s, and has been recorded by Peter Burton (1977):

As feely homies, when we launched ourselves onto the gay scene, polari was all the rage. We would zhoosh our riahs, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we could stand around polarying with our sisters, varda the bona carts on the butch hom[m]e ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth. If we had enough bona measures, we might buy a handful of dubes to hoosh down our screechs – enabling us to get blocked out of our minds.

A translation can be made with the following glossary:

ajax adjacent
batts shoes
bijou small
blocked get high on pills (‘Purple Hearts’)
bona very good, splendid
butch masculine
carts crotch
drag clothes
dubes pills
eek face
feely young
homme, homies man, men
measures money
ogle-riahs eye-lashes
polari homosexual slang
riahs hair
screech mouth, throat
sister close friend
troll walk
varda look (at)
vogue cigarette
zhoosh comb (but also zhoosh off go away; and zhoosh shoplift)

Polari contains mostly nouns, and some adjectives, but there were a few verbs, such as blag, to make a pick-up. Contrary to the social constructionist view that a secret gay language develops in order to allow homosexuals to communicate with one another without being understood or recognized by straights, polari was never designed to escape notice, but was often confrontative: ‘Even when travelling in the singular, we weren’t averse to shrieking a quick get you, girl at some menacing naff . . . . We flaunted our homosexuality. We were pleased to be different. We were proud and secretly longed to broadcast our difference to the world: when we were in a crowd.’ (Naff, dreary and dull, especially heterosexuals, purportedly derives from Normal As Fuck.) The origins of most gay argot, in other languages as well as English, can be traced to a core of faggots who couldn’t give a damn about being overheard by respectable people. They used queer language for the purposes of cultural solidarity, not to convey secret messages past the ears of unwitting straights.

As with the mollies two centuries earlier, many 1950s gay men and pollones, women, and especially homie pollones, effeminate queens, used camp nicknames, such as ‘Dobbin Clit, the Slender Slinky, Monica Christmas Tree, Terry the Pill, Pussycat Michael, . . . the Antique Pam, Bambi, Twizzle, Samantha (a transvestite cat burglar who lived on a diet of black boot polish, cold cream and sniffed wig cleaning fluid).’ If it was not clear from the list of molly names, it should now be clear that ‘female’ nicknames is a misnomer: these are queer nicknames.

Many polari terms come from the working-class East End of London, as Burton explains: in East End backslang the order of the letters are reversed, hence ‘hair’ becomes riah, ‘face’ becomes e-caff and is then shortened to eek. ‘A considerable amount of the East End slang itself is derived from foreign words which were brought to this country by the various influxes of refugees’; for example, Jarrying the cartes, eating cock or cocksucking, from Italian mangiare, to eat. ‘Such polari as survives is that which is handed down from one generation of queans to another (incidentally, giving us at least one "living" link with our homosexual past). . . . There was something deeply reassuring about polari – it gave those of us who used it an additional sense of corporate identity’ (Burton 1977).

Among queers this language is almost universally called polari; Burton derives it from palaver; Eric Partridge calls it parlyaree; the Oxford Companion to the English Language says it comes from eighteenth-century Italian parlare, to talk, and is sometimes spelled palarie, parlyaree, parlary, etc. It was once an ‘extensive argot or cant in Britain and elsewhere, among sailors, itinerants, people in show business (especially the theatre and circuses), and some homosexual groups. . . . A composite of different Romance sources, it was first taken to England by sailors, may derive ultimately from Lingua Franca [seventeenth-century Italian, the language of the Franks] a mixed language based on Italian and Occitan (Southern French), used for trading and military purposes in the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages.’ Polari seems to have survived only in Britain (perhaps specifically England), with a vocabulary of about 100 words, some of which have entered general British slang, e.g. ponce, effeminate man, from poonce, Yiddish for cunt, and Spanish pu(n)to, male prostitute.

Modern Greek homosexual argot, called Kaliardá, is used more specifically by the receptive homosexual, the kinaidhos or, pejoratively, the poustis (the active partner is the kolombarás). This argot is sometimes called Latinika Latin, and a more secret subdivision of it is known as Vathia Latinika Deep Latin, or Etrouska Etruscan. In 1971 the folklorist Elias Petropoulos privately printed his book Kaliardá: An Etymological Dictionary of Greek Homosexual Slang, for which he served a seven-month prison term in 1972. He suggests it may derive from the French word gailliard; others have suggested it drives from a Romany term meaning ‘Gypsy’. It uses words derived from modern Greek, English, French, Italian, Turkish and Romany, and presumably is another example of queer Lingua Franca disseminated by sailors and immigrants landing in major seaports.

A Kaliardá compound can indeed be an alloy of two or three roots from two or three different languages. . . . Among the grammatical curiosities of the argot is the fact that nearly all nouns and adjectives are used in the feminine form. As opposed to other Greek argots (such as underworld slang) which grammatically are Modern Greek but with slang terms inserted, Kaliardá is nearly a language in itself: only a few Greek words are necessary, along with two particles required in the construction of verbal tenses. . . . Kaliardá nicknames, proverbs, curses, and place-names also exist. (J. Taylor, ‘Kaliardá’, EH)

The origins of many words are entirely obscure. The notion that labels are used by the ruling society to control minority cultures is contradicted by the existence of queer labels whose origin is completely unknown to either the straight culture or queer culture. The Chinese slang for homosexuality (also adopted in Japanese slang) is xia zhuan, ‘intimacy with a brick’; no one knows its origin (thank goodness). Many of the queer words which we take for granted today have an obscure history. To ‘camp’ it up might come from the French verb se camper, ‘to posture or flaunt’; or it might come from the polari/Lingua Franca word kaemp, also meaning to display transgendered behaviour (Conner 1997); or neither. No one quite knows the literal meaning or origin of the British term for pansy, poof – or even how it should be spelled (pouf, poove, pooff, puff) or how it should be pronounced (poof, puff, poove). Everyone assumes that fairy comes from the word for the supernatural creature of folklore, but this is by no means certain. The queer term, first used to describe the participants in New York drag balls in the 1890s, was fary – it always meant effeminate, but ‘fairy’ mythology/lore was seldom an explicit part of the context, and may be a retrospective interpretation. The origins of some of the most frequently used modern slang words for homosexual are unknown, which has given rise to queer folk etymology.

No one quite knows why ‘dyke’ is used to refer to a butch lesbian. It can be traced back to 1920s black American slang, ‘bull-diker’ or ‘bull-dagger’, but the meaning of ‘diker/dagger’ is unclear. No one knows for certain why homosexual men were called ‘faggots’. As a queer term it dates only from 1914, in America, when ‘fagots’, meaning ‘sissies’, are reported as going to a ‘drag ball’. ‘Queer’ has been the most frequently used queer-term in twentieth-century English, by queers and by homophobes, but no one really knows for certain how its homosexual meaning arose.

Dyke, faggot, gay, queer: these are queer-words. When straights heard them for the first time in the 1930s or 1950s they did not know what they meant. Because they had not created them – queers had. When the mollies were tried in the early eighteenth century, the judges and juries heard words they had never heard before and phrases they did not understand: bit a blow, caterwauling, caudle-making, indorse, madge culls, to do the story, Battersea’d. In a homosexual trial in Britain in the 1950s the jury had to be handed a glossary of queer terms so that they could comprehend the testimony they were about to hear (Higgins 1996). These are not words of hegemonic social control: these are words indigenous to an ethnic culture. The fact that they happen to be fairly modern queer-words does not mean that queer culture is a modern invention: these particular words have simply superseded earlier queer words such as 'molly' and 'tribade', both of which have had a longer history than dyke, faggot, gay, queer.

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(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Queer Language," 16 July 2002, updated 2 July 2011 <>

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