Swish (slang)

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Swish is an often derogatory British English slang term for effeminate behaviour and interests (camp), emphasized and sanctioned in pre-Stonewall gay male communities.[1][2][3] This behaviour is also described as being nelly. Wentworth and Flexner define swish as a noun meaning "a male homosexual, esp. one with obviously feminine traits".[4]

Being swish includes sashaying and the use of limp wrists, falsetto voices, feminine pronouns, and superlatives—basically, everything up to the other side of camp, or drag.[3][5]

Extravagant language is common. Such expressions as 'Oh my word!' 'Give you a clue' 'Good heavens!' and 'Oh, my dear!' are readily associated with other aspects of a feminine man.[citation needed] In describing ordinary experiences the male variant is likely to use such words as 'terrific,' 'fabulous,' 'completely devoted,' 'horrible,' 'tremendous,' 'oh, honey,' 'sublimely,' 'charming,' 'appalling,' 'vicious,' 'fierce,' 'loathed,' and 'madly.' Exaggerations are made more conspicuous by placing undue or inappropriate emphasis on certain syllables and intonations which leave little doubt of the effeminacy of the speaker."[3][6]

Although being butch was viewed as deviant and socially unacceptable by gay male society,[3][7] being swish has since lost its mainstream gay status post-Stonewall, and in addition to being used occasionally by mainstream culture is now most often derogatory even when used by gay men. Though it may be assumed that most post-Stonewall gay men[clarification needed] view acting swish as internalized homophobia, a concession to stereotypes of gay men as less than manly. However, the Castro clone, a hyper-masculine, macho standard and ideal behaviour that replaced swish—adapted many camp elements such as dish.

Thus while clones could view swish as embodying anti-gay stereotypes, being swish was a way of indicating and performing one's identity, indicating that anti-gay stereotypes could be derived from gay identities.[citation needed] Further, one could turn swish on or off, as described by Martin Levine in Gay Macho:

Most recently, swish has taken on an empowering and action-oriented meaning within the LGBT rights movement. To swish is to create opportunities for straight allies to become active in the LGBT civil rights movement. It embodies a form of activism that is uplifting, rewarding and fun. E.g. “I swish because all LGBT people deserve to live and love equally.” [8]


  1. ^ Stanley, J. P. (1974) "When We Say 'Out of the Closets!'" College English, 36, 7.
  2. ^ Kleinberg, Seymour. "unknown article." Christopher Street, March 1978. Cited in Levine 1998.
  3. ^ a b c d e Levine, Martin P. Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press, 1998, p. 55–6.
  4. ^ Wentworth, Harold and Stuart Berg Flexner. Dictionary of American Slang. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.
  5. ^ (Sonenschein 1969; Tripp 197?, both cited in Levine 1998)
  6. ^ (Henry, 1955, p. 291, cited in Levine 1998)
  7. ^ (Warren 1972, 1974; Helmer 1963, both cited in Levine 1998)
  8. ^ Stiffler, Scott., (Friday, June 18, 2004). Straight Gals Dish on Why Gays Make Great Pals. Chelsea Now (online).

Further reading[edit]

  • Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever by Joel Derfner, Broadway Books, 2008.