Dear Word Detective: I’m hoping you can solve a question that came up in a rehearsal last night. Actors were discussing the origin of the term “drag” as it refers to someone playing a role of the opposite gender. Someone said that it was from old script notations, where a Stage Manager or someone like that would indicate in the margins “DRAG,” meaning “DRess like A Girl.” I said I thought that was probably apocryphal (right word?), that it was a little too pat an explanation, and that it was more likely derived from street lingo. But my confidence wavered, and I started wondering indeed where the term might have come from. I also started thinking about the many uses of “drag,” as in “drag your feet” and “drag on a cigarette” and “What a drag” and “dragnet,” and my head got dizzy. So please help me! I’d love to put that old story to rest if it is in fact bogus. — Jeanie.
Gosh, I wish I had invented the acronym. I could charge a small fee per use, say three cents, and after about six months I could buy my own country and set up my own laws. I would be just, of course, but firm. Television would be outlawed, every household would be issued three cats (we could start by passing out a few of mine), and possession of either eggplant or a banjo would land you in the pokey. Oh well. You folks don’t know what you’re missing.
“Apocryphal,” meaning “of questionable veracity” or simply “erroneous,” is certainly the proper word for the story you heard about “drag.” As for the other senses of “drag” you mention, they all go back to the original (and still primary) sense of “to drag,” which was “to draw or pull something which resists motion,” as in “dragging” a heavy trunk across your attic floor. English adopted “to drag” in the 15th century from either the Old English “dragan” (which gave us “draw”) or the Norse “draga.” “To drag one’s feet” invokes the basic sense of “to move against inertia” (whether physical or emotional), and “to drag” on a cigarette, meaning to strongly pull smoke from it, was first used around 1919. A “dragnet” in the literal sense is a type of fishing net that scours the sea bottom for any and all fish; the metaphorical use to mean “a thorough police search” is from the early 20th century. Calling an annoying thing or boring person a “drag” dates, surprisingly, all the way back to 1813.
The use of “wear drag” or “in drag” to mean, originally, a man wearing women’s clothing is first found in print in the late 19th century, and simply reflects the sensation, novel for men of the day, of a long skirt or the like “dragging” across the floor. The acronymic explanation of “drag” is a later attempt to “reverse-engineer” the term, but, like most such attempts, bears no relation to the much simpler reality.