27 December 2012

Ho Ho Homo... It's Xmas!

It's Christmas time. For me, of course, it was time to walk around the city of Leeds in search of examples of peculiarities in English which related to the festive season. Here are some examples.

Sign in front of the VIADUCT Bar (Lower Briggate - Leeds)
Shop at Queens Arcade (Briggate Leeds)
New Ice Age film advert at Shopping Quarter (Lands Lane - Leeds)

Gourmet Burger Kitchen advert (East Parade - Leeds)
Boy, was I happy with the examples I found. But I was even happier on Christmas day. I was walking up Lower Briggate to try and find some more pictures when I was approached by a gentleman who invited me for a Christmas dinner at Fibre. It was Terry George himself!

So, gladly for me, it was no time for Bah! Humbug! And nothing could feel warmer than having turkey, pie with cream, and other Christmas delights in the company of other Queens.

Hum... Turkey!
Future contestant of RuPaul's Drag Race
Queens and their Crowns
Pole Dancing Queen

Yes, I felt at home.

21 December 2012

Got a Big Head?

The new UK top hit of Britney Spears had just started to boom in the dance floor at the Queen’s Court. Clifford, my partner, had finally managed to get attention at the bar.
“Oh my God, ah av’ to go.” I shouted. Clifford was already grinning at me because he knew I was dying to dance that song. But before I made a dash, I caught sight of the sign
Sign at the Bar of Queen's Court (Leeds)

I immediately remembered how odd those words were for me when I first read them. That’s because when I first read that sign, Clifford was in that right same spot, also ordering a stout. Naturally, he couldn’t hear me over the noisy background of Queen’s Court. So I pointed to the words BIG HEAD.
I knew that big-headed, as an adjective, is used to mean that someone thinks he or she is very important – it’s a synonym to arrogant, conceited. But big head didn’t make sense in that context.
Clifford, like usual, helped me.
“Oh… it’s the frothy foam on top of the beer. We call it HEAD.”
“Ah…” I read the sign again.
‘got a BIG head? If you think the head size on your beer is too large we will gladly top up your glass.’
“Is it a new use of HEAD?”
“No, no. It’s been around since I was seventeen.”
Well. Definitely not a new use of HEAD.
I lost myself in that memory, reminding how a word like HEAD can have its meaning bent to so many contexts. When I came to myself again I was in the dance floor completely in trance by the sound of Scream and Shout.
“…You are now rocking with will.I.am and Britney bitch…”

8 December 2012

Rip-Off Food, Rip-Off Meaning

Rip-Off was a word that I learned when I started working at Millies Cookies.

“It’s one cookie for eighty-nine p and five for two ninety-nine.” I’d say to each customer when they asked me “how much it cost”.

“It’s a rip-off!” The younger customers would often utter, stressing the word rip-off.

Though the price of the cookies at Millie’s was a bit salty, I knew it was worth its cost. Alas, some foods aren’t worth even the meaning of their own label. This is what I learned by watching Rip Off Food (BBC ONE, aired 29 Oct 2012).

This is a matter of linguistic strangeness because while the label of a can (or package) defines a meaning regulated by law, the content of the can may not be what is actually defined in the label. In practical terms this is what happens…

How much chicken should a soup have to be labelled Chicken Soup? Rip Off Food shows that 0.5% of chicken powder is enough. It’s also show in the programme a Pastan Sauce Chicken & Mushroom that contains 1% of mushroom and 0% of chicken – the word chicken is justified in the product because is has chicken flavour. Flavour is a word that attributes different meanings to a product.
Under the regulations, a label that shows Chicken Flavour doesn’t have to contain any trace of chicken in it. In this sense the word flavour actually has a literal meaning – chicken flavour, is just flavour, but no chicken.
But if the suffix ed is added to the word flavour, then a label showing flavoured means that the product is derived from the real thing.
Now, if you think that cream in ice cream always means milk fat, think again. Rip Off Food shows that there are foods that don’t contain any of the main ingredients they’re commonly known for. That’s how ice cream may not contain any cream whatsoever. Ice cream may contain vegetable oil, whey protein, sugar, emulsifiers, flavouring, and not a drop of cream in it, and still be legally labelled ice cream.
Still, other products like creamed potatoes, cream crackers, and butter beans, describe a dairy characteristic, even though there’s no dairy product in them.

“Neat-picky” you may say.

Indeed. Not even in formal dictionaries words and their meanings always seem to correspond logically. Bad, for example, means good, excellent, and such meaning is recognised in the Concise OED. Again the examples presented in Rip Off Food are evidence that the language we come across ordinarily is indeed – like David Crystal hypothesised – strange (see post 1).

4 December 2012

Drag Queen’s English: Paris Flame On

Paris is Burning – the 1990 documentary about the Golden Age of drag balls in New York City – premiered here last week. Besides depicting the atmosphere of the underground drag balls of New York City, Paris is Burning presents peculiarities of the English used by the queens. Such language peculiarities – which characterises the distinctiveness of the Drag Queens English – could remain restricted to a small social group and maybe end up falling into obscurity if the mainstream public worldwide didn’t have a chance to observe them in RuPauls Drag Race.
Interior Illusions Lounge (where the girls Untuck)

Watching Paris is Burning we instantly recognise many of the words and phrases used by RuPaul and the queens in RPDRace. For the international public, as I believe, many of these peculiarities pass them by or, when we notice them, we don’t really fully realise their meaning. So, in this post, I made a glossary of some distinctive words and phrases from Paris is Burning that frequently occur in RPDRace.
Werk it!, an expression of praise;
Gag, lose speech or breath in jealousy or amazement; used as imperative in phrases like “Gag on my eleganza!”
Nerve, audacity.
Cheesecake, showing some skin and posing with glamour. In Paris is Burning, a judge of the ball competion says: "That means you must not only have a body, but you must be sexy."
Fierce, be extraordinarily excellent; in RPDRace (s01, e05), Nina Flowers reveals her awareness of the distinct meaning that fierce has in the drag English: “Ru comes into the room with these fierce girls. Not ‘fierce’ like like drag fierce, like fierce, like they they looked threatening.”
Shady, being mean and contemptuous; from shade (see post 04).
Hunty, used with an ironic tone at the end of phrases, apparently as a substitute for hunny – variant pronunciation of honey used as an affectionate form of address.
Legendary  children, or just Legendary, the queens who made name in the drag balls competitions;
Category is... a reference to categories that contestants compete for in the drag balls. RPDRace's contestants refered to Dida Ritz, from season 4, using the catchphrase: "The category is... cheesecake!"
House, a gay street gang, named after ball walkers who became known for winning; each house has a Mother (and a Father in some cases) who is the leader, the queen whom the house members look up to.  Pepper LaBeija, mother of the House of LaBeiJa, also refers to house as family. “They’re family… This is a new meaning of family… It’s a question of a group of human beings, in a mutual bond” That’s how queens come to call each other Sisters.
Houses featured in Paris is Burning
Other formulaic sentences heard in Paris is Burn and used by RuPaul frequently are:
Learn it. And learn it well.
Shake the dice. Steal the rice. This is how RuPaul usually introduces Santino Rice who is staple judge in RPDRace.
Touch this skin, darling. Touch this skin, hunny. Touch all of this skin, ok? Quite a catchphrase used in RPDRace. It appears in Paris is Burning and it’s Venus Xtravaganza who seems to have created it.
Venus says: “Now, you wanna talk about reading? Let’s talk about reading. What’s wrong with you Pedro? You’re going through it? You’re going through it some kind of psychological change in your life? Oh, you want back to being a man. Touch this skin, darling. Touch this skin hunny. Touch all of this skin, ok. You just can’t take it. You’re just an overgrown orang-utan.”
Venuz Xtravaganza in Paris is Burning

Queens around the word, truly proficient in Drag Queens English, feel free to comment (reading welcome) and correct me on the meaning of such words and phrases.
For the visits and support, a big time Thanks.

24 November 2012

Drag Queen’s English: Vogue

Leeds (Lower Briggate)_Queen's Court
Vogue is a well known word nowadays. Its meaning has been bent in the 80’s and assumed a new (modern) position – position which is now depicted in formal dictionaries and in the general consciousness of the Western World. Being a non-English speaker, far removed from the cultural setting from where the modern meaning of vogue sprung, I didn’t understand what such word meant when I first heard Madonna’s hit Vogue.
The only person who managed to make me understand the meaning of vogue was my first ‘serious’ boyfriend. Two factors singled him out from our regular hang out group as the person who had a better insight of the new meaning of vogue: he performed as a drag queen, impersonating Madonna, and had a reasonable knowledge of the American pop gay culture.
“Vogue is this…” He began explaining and, instead of using words, he started contorting his arms around his body, assuming a close-up pose with each movement.
Vogue music video

The Concise OED defines vogue as “the prevailing fashion or style at a particular time.” OED still highlights that vogue is often used in the phrase ‘in/out of vogue’ and shows that vogue entered into English in the 16th Century, from French and Italian voga ‘rowing, fashion’. As a verb, however, OED defines vogue with its modern meaning: “dance to music in a way that imitates the poses struck by a model on a catwalk.” No further detail on this meaning is given.
Happily, the Queen Mother RuPaul, in season one of RuPauls Drag Race, mentioned the origins of the modern meaning of vogue. “Vogue was introduced to the world in the cult classic Paris is Burning. And, of course, the mainstream learned about voguing from another queen; name: Madonna…”
RuPaul's Drag Race, s. 01 ep. 06_Mini-Challenge: Vogue Off

It’s during the mini-challenge, a vogue off, that RuPaul further evidences that the features of his eccentric English are not simply idiosyncratic but they actually echo the English of a whole social subgroup. There are two ways of being introduced to the roots of RuPaul’s Drag Queens English: by travelling back to the Golden Age of drag balls during the 80’s in New York City, or by watching Paris is Burning. Watching this documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, can also make one grasp how the word vogue was deviated from its traditional sense in English.
We start to grasp the germ of such deviation when a drag queen named Dorian Corey explains the distinction between Shade and Reading: “Shade came from reading. Reading came first. Reading is the real art form of insult. You get in a good crack and everyone laughs because you found a flaw and exaggerated it. We talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes. Then Reading became a more developed form; where it became shade.”
Shade, if I really understood, is a subtler form of reading – though I have the impression that these words are sometimes used as synonyms. It’s by understanding the sense of shade, that we can understand the meaning of Voguing. This is what the choreographer Willi Ninja explains. “Voguing came from shade because it was a dance that two people do because they didn’t like each other. Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor and whoever did the better moves was throwing the best shade, basically. It’s the same thing as taking knives and cutting each other up, but through a dance form. So voguing is like a safe form of throwing shade.”
Finally, Willi Ninja helps us to understand how the verb vogue proceeds from voguing. “The name is taken from the magazine Vogue, because some of the movements of the dance are also the same as the poses inside the magazine.”
Vogue seems to have the characteristics of a slang term; it’s a word restricted to a particular social group and context, and it also can be paralleled to reading and throwing shade. Yet, OED doesn’t label vogue as slang. It’s patent that vogue, with its modern meaning, just became mainstream English. And that evidences that there’s only a thin line that distinguishes strangeness and Standard when it comes to language (English, if you will).