Spilling the tea: How centuries of drag culture gave us modern slang

The top definition listed for “yas” in the internet’s bible, Urban Dictionary, is “an annoying expression used by girls expressing extreme liking.”

In fact, when the stars of “Broad City” were interviewed by TheWrap in 2016 about the origins of their “catchphrase,” they credited a writer who had loved a then-viral video of Johnny Versayce screaming the phrase after meeting his idol Lady Gaga.

That video, which came out in 2013, was immediately dubbed by BuzzFeed a “new meme,” and “yas” became a new, quirky way to “tell someone you love them.”

In reality, “yas” has been used since the 1890s. It’s an expression used during drag performances to offer encouragement and support. Many performers were often young or part of the Black and Latinx communities, so it was a way to help them feel welcomed into the house and to include them in shows.

Ball culture — AKA the drag scene — essentially has its own vernacular that is commonly used to help identify other members of the community and to disguise conversations in public. Back in the early 1900s when homosexuality and drag were considered cardinal sins, words like “yas,” “work,” “gagging,” “eleganza” and “hunty” became ways to covertly communicate, especially for people of color.

Drag is not just about outfits or wigs or makeup; it’s rooted in race and marginalization. A lot of the language comes from the blending of slang in queer Black and Latinx communities. That’s why when cis-gendered young women — the leading demographic for creating widespread linguistic trends — pick up words or when certain phrases go viral online, it can blur out the politics and complicated history behind them.

Drag can be thanked for the rise of lip-syncing and contouring, too. Beauty YouTubers who “beat their face” are inspired by drag — and are using drag slang when they say “beat” — whether they know it or not. Language is finicky because it’s used to convey a specific identity, so when it’s co-opted by someone outside of that identity, it can lose its value.

In November 2019, Merriam-Webster collaborated on an art project called “Thank a Queen” with Los Angeles agency The Many. Together the teams created posters celebrating words like “tea” and “shade” with the drag culture that brought the slang to prominence.

Artist Jorge Andrade, who designed the pieces, explained, “My vision for these posters was to give the oft-unsung drag community, Latinx, and black-femme subcultures the recognition they deserve for coining so many of the terms we hear and say so frequently today.”

The goal was so that next time someone used the terms, they would “thank a queen.” The project was a finalist in the Shorty Awards LGBTQ Community Engagement category.

Patricia Field, a famous New York City visionary who was a costume designer on “Sex and the City” and received an Oscar nomination for her work on “The Devil Wears Prada,” posted a two-part series on her YouTube channel titled “Open House: Speaking with Distinction.”

There’s a fine line between forgetting the past and normalizing speech and behavior that was forbidden years ago. While some can point to the release of “Paris is Burning” in 1991 as the reason drag became mainstream (or even Madonna’s “Vogue” around the same time, for which Madonna hired real drag ballroom members to help her), it really wasn’t until recently that drag culture became widely accepted.

Take “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” for instance, which just wrapped up its 12th season in May 2020. RuPaul was launched into the spotlight back in 1993 when he released “Supermodel (You Better Work).” There was a Washington Post write-up about him that same year, but in a 2016 interview with “Nightline,” RuPaul said that he still didn’t think anyone was taking him or drag seriously.

“The only ways they can actually have a conversation with me is to make fun of me, or somehow make a joke about what I’m doing,” he said.

After the show moved to VH1 from Logo TV, its viewership blew up. RuPaul won four consecutive Emmys and the show itself earned two for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. Slate named the show one of the most “powerful” examples of influential pop culture catchphrases.

But while drag is being welcomed into the mainstream lexicon, the words that define the culture still hold a deeper meaning to the community. The language is what connects the LGBTQ community not just to the now, but to their history.

“There’s the show’s other type of slang — the kind that emerges naturally from the drag queen experience,” writes Mark Blankenship in an article for Out. “When the queens say they’re sickening or they’re going to mop your purse or they ain’t tryin’ to have no kai kai in the dressing room, they’re not branding a catchphrase. They’re using that language because they’re drag queens, and that’s how drag queens talk.”

While we might not be able to change what we’ve already done to the language — see: homemade “Broad City” mugs with “yaaaas queen” written in cursive — it’s important to move forward with the understanding that this slang is delicate and meaningful, and we should take the time to thank a queen for it.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also likereading this profile on Candy Sterling, a fierce drag queen at night and a corporate professional by day.

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