Words and their Multiple Meanings: Throwing Shade

“Shade” Traditional Form

noun, 1. comparative darkness and coolness caused by shelter from direct sunlight

2. a color, especially with regard to how light or dark it is or as distinguished from one nearly like it.

verb, 1. screen from direct light.

2. darken or color (an illustration or diagram) with parallel pencil lines or a block of color.

“Shade” Slang/Colloquial Form

noun, 1. illegitimate behavior e.g. “acting shady”

verb, 1. acting in a casual/flippant or disrespectful manner towards someone, somewhat like teasing e.g. “throwing shade”

I wanted to focus on this because the use of shade and specifically throwing shade has become more and more popular in mainstream culture in the last few years. It is a part of a larger trend of gay/queer culture being adopted by the straight society.

The term “throwing shade” comes from black and latino gay communities. The term’s movement into straight/mainstream culture was in the documentary Paris Is Burning (1990). This movie showed the lives and culture of queer people in New York City, mainly young gay men and people participating in the drag and ball scene. There has been consideration for the growth/resurgence in popularity from RuPaul’s Drag Race being on the air since 2009.

The drag queen Dorien Corey explains in Paris Is Burning:

“When someone insults you directly, that’s called a “read.” For example, if I were to tell you that your glasses are ugly. Point blank. That’s a read. Reads can be long or short.”Shade” comes from reading”.

What does it mean when the dominant culture picks up slang from subcultures specifically of marginalized groups?

In my opinion it is okay, and certainly should not be restricted to the group(s) of origin, but it is disappointing that most people don’t know the origin.

Some might ask in today’s social climate, is it cultural appropriation?

Some people would say yes, some would say no. I personally do not think so. I can speak as a member of the queer community who recognizes that I myself didn’t always know this. For a while I was ignorant of the source of this term and many like it (tea, slay, serve etc). Everyone has to learn at some point and I am sure there are other terms from different subcultures that I have heard/used and have not yet learned the origin. I believe knowing these origins is positive it reveals the socio-cultural context. And as we all have discussed, words and therefore language are born out of specific contexts and are understood in specific ways dependent on the future context. In the end, most of these terms relate to joking around, which is all in good fun.


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