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The low hems of high-heeled boys.

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.


Some guy once actually mistook me for Stephen King, but he was drunk.

Dear Word Detective: I recently got in a minor debate over the term “Doppelganger.” A friend had seen an episode of Buffy where the same characters from different dimensions met and they referred to the newly added character as a Doppelganger. I had always thought of Doppelgangers as a mimic or spirit that could look like someone else, not applicable in this case, where it was more of a Bizzaro-Superman situation. I know this doesn’t have earth-shattering implications, but I’m real curious about the word in general. –Tim.

Well, the taxonomy of the supernatural is not exactly in my bailiwick, but I’m always up for a field trip to Weirdville. I presume we’re talking about the late great WB TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and not the short-lived C-SPAN copycat series, “Buffy the Heritage Foundation Intern.” Unfortunately, I completely forgot to watch Buffy during its 1997-2003 run, but for those of you similarly bereft, the series concerned a young woman dragooned by Fate into, well, slaying vampires and stuff like that. According to Wikipedia, the whole show was a metaphor for life in high school. What. Ever.

Bizarro, of course, first appeared in a 1958 Superboy comic book, but as I recall (after a bit of research), he was created by a laboratory mishap with a Duplicating Ray, so the trans-dimensional aspect of that Buffy episode doesn’t really match up with Bizarro. Bizarro was also not a “doppelganger” in the strict sense, as that term is reserved for an exact double of a living person (and Bizarro was a hideously malformed version of Superboy).

The word “doppelganger” is German, a combination of “dopple” (meaning “double”) and “ganger” (meaning “goer” or “walker”). Interestingly, although the German form “doppelganger” is in common usage today, the initial form when the term first appeared in English in the early 18th century was the Anglicized “double-ganger,” which made no more sense in English than “doppelganger,” but sounded less foreign.

The “doppelganger” has been a fixture of folklore in many cultures for centuries, and is usually said to appear as a wraith, or insubstantial duplicate, of a person. A person may see his or her own “doppelganger,” which is said to be bad luck and an omen of impending death, illness, or, presumably, dementia. Friends may also see the “doppelganger” when the actual person is elsewhere, perhaps at a party to which the friends are not invited. Traditionally, “doppelgangers” cast no shadow, are invisible in mirrors, and are exempt from jury duty in most jurisdictions.

While believers in the paranormal use the term “doppelganger” in the literal woo-woo spooky sense, in common usage “doppelganger” has come to serve simply as a synonym for “double” or, still more loosely, “a person who shares important characteristics of another,” much as the word “clone” is now used loosely. So the use of “doppelganger” in the Buffy episode you cite is certainly in the ballpark of common usage.


Where “moderate wear” means “used for target practice.”

Dear Word Detective: An acquaintance recently received a book she had bought on eBay, and enclosed with the book was a card that said “With Compliments.” She was charmed, but curious at the same time as to the origin and proper use of the phrase. When presenting something with your compliments, isn’t it properly something that is being given freely, or “complimentary”? If someone has bought something from you, would it actually be proper to say “with compliments?” — Lori.

Hmm. I’m usually more of a “glass half empty” than “glass half full” kind of guy myself (lately, in fact, I’ve been in a “Give me back my glass” frame of mind), but I think your friend may be looking a complimentary horse in the mouth, so to speak. She bought something on eBay, she actually received said something, you don’t mention it being covered in squirrel droppings or showing signs of a recent charbroiling, and her only complaint seems to be a small card of questionable literacy? Your friend needs to start playing the lottery before her luck wears off.

On the other hand, your friend is correct. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “complimentary” as “Given free to repay a favor or as an act of courtesy,” and even uses the example “complimentary copies of the new book.” As your friend paid for the book, it was hardly “complimentary” in that sense. Perhaps the dealer was “complimenting” (flattering) the buyer on her fine choice of reading material. OK, probably not.

Of course, as always, it might have been worse: the card might have read “With Complements.” The distinction between “complement” and “compliment” escapes many people, which is understandable because these two words started out as essentially the same word. The root of both was the Latin noun “complementum,” from “complere,” to fill up or finish (also the source of “complete”). English adopted “complementum” as “complement” in the 14th century with the sense of “that which completes,” but by the late 16th century we were using it to mean more specifically “that which fulfills the norms of civilized behavior,” i.e., politeness. A “complement” (note the spelling) became “polite words of praise.”

Then, in the 17th century, English essentially imported “complementum” again, this time as “compliment” (with an “i”), and began using it to mean “an expression of regard; words of praise,” and, as a verb, “to praise” or “to present a person with a gift as an act of courtesy” (as in the “complimentary” breakfasts offered by many motels these days). This new “compliment” (and the adjective “complimentary”) left “complement” with an “e” to devolve back to its root meaning of “something that completes or matches” (as in “Floppy clown shoes would be the perfect complement for that outfit”).