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 Queen’s 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 RuPaul’s Drag Race.
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!”
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.
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.”
Queens around the word, truly proficient in Drag Queen’s English, feel free to comment (reading welcome) and correct me on the meaning of such words and phrases.
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