Lifting shirts

A little while back I made up some notecards using an ad from (reproduced below), adding the caption:

ABS Show
A few of the guys weren’t
Into shirt-lifting.

The ad shows various degrees of lifting shirts in front, to display the male torso, especially the guy’s “six-packs” (the abs, that is, abdominal muscles). It celebrates fitness, and homoeroticism as well.

Linguistic point here: the synthetic compound shirt-lifting, which turns out to have two families of senses, only one of them illustrated  by the ad. There’s also a synthetic compound shirt-lifter, with two families of senses; the guys in the ad are shirt-lifters in one sense, but not (necessarily) in the other.

And then, of course, from shirt-lifting and shirt-lifter, we get a back-formed compound verb to shirt-lift, again with two families of senses.

(The three compounds are variously written solid, hyphenated, or separated. I quote things as they appeared in my sources. My own usage is, as you will see, not entirely consistent.)

I’ll start with the ‘torso display’ family of senses. As it happens, for some years I’ve been interested in the following questions (from the description of a course that never got taught):

How are gay masculinities and relationships depicted in mainstream art, film, and fiction?  In material aimed at a gay audience?  In particular, how are they depicted in Gayland, the fantasy world of gay eros (where there is a high premium on masculinity)?  That is, what are the conventions in specifically sexual material aimed at a gay male audience – erotic representations of the male body and pornographic representations of sex between men?

As part of this project, I have written a set of little essays (in a colloquial style) on facets of Gayland, including this one on the torso display:

Offering Your Body
Displaying Your Equipment
The Shirt Lifter: Hard Abs, Sweet Belly

Shirt lifting used to be a famously fag thing, but it’s all over the place now.  Undergear/International Male models – many of them smiling adorably – seem to be on the leading edge of this cultural shift.  Straight guys are getting used to being objects of desire, a development probably attributable to Calvin Klein’s glaring, scowling, or simply vacant faux-rentboys.  This is a good thing for fags everywhere.  We even get to opt for the muscle queen with the macho hard abs or the twink with the eminently kissable sweet belly.

Shirt lifting displays go from the coyest (The Basic Tease), with a small patch of belly exposed by one hand lifting the shirt up this little bit, through the bolder Belly and Tit Display, with the shirt held (by hand, or occasionally, in the teeth), or pushed up, above the tits, to the Framed Full Frontal display, with the shirt rolled up and placed out of the way, hooked behind the neck – essentially a Full Torso display framed on top with what is now a suggestion, or memory, of a shirt rather than an imaginably functional piece of clothing.

The 10percent guys illustrate several levels of shirt-lifting, but not the Framed Full Frontal display, which you can see in this depiction of sex between driver and hitchhiker:

(Not being sure of the limits on posting things in WordPress, I’ve cropped the image to eliminate the driver’s massive hard-on in the hitchhiker’s attentive hand.)

Outside of Gayland, there’s plenty of torso-displaying shirt-lifting going on. For example:

Don’t ban shirt-lifting celebrations in football/soccer.

The purpose of this petition is to say you disagree with the decision by FIFA and in particular the English FA to ban players from celebrating a goal by lifting their shirt over their heads (and variations of) or face a yellow card. (link)

Bodybuling [i.e., Bodybuilding] Video : 15year old shirt lifting and Flexing (link)

Purported Angelina Jolie shirt-lifting photos are fake, says hospital (link)

Torso-display shirt-lifter is much rarer; the sexual sense ‘(male) homosexual’ seems to have pretty much taken over the territory, to the point where someone using it to refer to shirt-lifting in a non-sexual sense is likely to be misunderstood, as this poster on a football/soccer site was:

wow and when i said i was a shirt lifter people said i was queer (link)

That brings us to the back-formed verb shirt-lift in the ‘torso display’ sense, as here:

[Michael Stipe] obviously did the obligatory ‘show off my bare stomach without actually looking like I’m trying to’ shirt lift… which is always welcome and inevitably gets some cheers in the middle of a song. (link)

So far I’ve been reporting on more-or-less literal readings of the three compounds; shirts are lifted. But all three are more frequently used in sexual senses, where no lifting of actual shirts is involved.

These sexual uses seem to be primarily British and Australian. OED2 (1989) has shirtlifter in its entry for shirt, glossed as ‘a male homosexual’ and labeled as Australian slang. The restriction to Australian is certainly not accurate now, and probably wasn’t in 1989 (if my memories of life in the U.K. are reliable); shirt-lifting ‘having gay sex’ and shirt-lifter ‘gay male’ are routine bits of slang in the U.K. (though shirt-lift ‘have gay sex’ seems to be too recent to have become frequent).

[Brief lexicographic notes. The American dictionaries NOAD2 and AHD4 don’t list any of the terms, but several British-oriented dictionaries have entries for shirt-lifter: the Collins Essential English Dictionary, 2nd ed., “derogatory slang” for a homosexual; the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, (informal) “a very offensive word for a man who is homosexual”; the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed., (British and Australian, informal) “an offensive way of referring to a man who is homosexual”.

OED2’s two cites for shirtlifter are both Australian (which is probably why the dictionary marks the word as specifically Australian): from Baker’s Australian Language of 1966, with shirt lifter glossed as ‘a sodomite’; and from a 1974 Sydney newspaper. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, vol. 2 (Dalzell and Victor, 2006) follows OED2 in marking the word as Australian, dated 1966 (the Baker book).

Specifically Australian references confirm that the epithet is in use there, but it’s clear from Google Books and web searches that the expression is widely used in the U.K. as well. The details of its history are still to be worked out.]

A couple web hits for sexual shirt-lifting:

Shirt-lifting Down Under
Sodomy in Sydney Town (link)

Subject: Re: Shirt-lifting, bum-bandit, fudge-packer jokes still OK (link) [U.K. source]

And for shirt-lifter:


Comedian Jim Davidson has been axed from ITV’s celebrity cooking show Hell’s Kitchen for insulting homosexuals.
The 53-year-old controversial entertainer was asked to leave by programme-makers for homophobic comments, which saw him brand gay men “shirtlifters”. (link) [British source]

And a double-header, from a British source:

“Church of England guidelines say gay clergy can enter a civil partnership if they provide reassurance that they will abstain from sex”
No shirt lifting by these shirt lifters then? (link)

Finally, back-formed shirt-lift in a sexual sense, from British sources:

If they want to be treated like everyone else then they should act like everyone else. Normal people (i.e. people who do not snort lots of coke, poppers and dance around like a fairy) do not need to shirt lift each other in public toilets and go over the top [by kissing each other] in a pub.They keep themselves under control until they get home. (link)

Forgive me for being a little right wing. But I believe gay sex is un-natural and shouldnt be promoted as a normal lifestyle. If people want to shirt lift in private then good for them.Why do they have to force us into accepting it as natural, when its obviously not. (link)

(Note that shirt-lift has both intransitive and transitive uses.)

These cites are certainly derogatory in tone. In fact, Allan & Burridge (Forbidden Words, 2006) identify shirt-lifter as one of a set of slang words for male homosexuals that “remain for the most part used by straights as dysphemisms” (p. 156).

Two questions now: about the semantics of the compounds (is the gay sex alluded to specifically anal sex?), and about the development of the sexual senses (how did the compounds come to refer to male homosexuality?)

The semantic question is hard to answer, because straight people in general take anal sex to be the central and defining sexual practice of gay men (so do some gay men, but in fact oral sex is the default sexual practice). So a reference to gay sex will, by implicature, suggest anal sex. There might be people for whom shirt-lifting etc. imply, rather than merely implicate, anal sex; if so, then these people wouldn’t accept shirt-lifting or shirt-lift as a reference to fellatio.

The question about sense development is also vexed, but there’s plenty of speculation around. The shirt-lifter entries in the Urban Dictionary have several inventive, but not very plausible, explanations for the term, in particular that it originates from the practice of lifting one’s shirt up in the back to allow another man access to your body for fucking (one commenter on the Achewood site observed that the crucial part of offering yourself for rogering isn’t lifting your shirt but dropping your pants), or from the practice of lifting other men’s shirts up in front to see how big their dicks are (or to gain access to their dicks for sexual purposes — jacking them off or sucking their cocks — though again, lifting their shirts doesn’t get you into their pants).

These accounts sound like post-hoc story-telling: the words are there, and people try to make sense of them by spinning tales. And perhaps by imagining practices that faggots might indulge in.

Of course there’s a homoerotic practice that does involve lifting shirts — the torso display that we started with. I have even seen this sort of shirt-lifting used as an invitation to sex, in men cruising rather aggressively, using the exposure of their torso as a hint of what else they might make available; in particular, they’re advertising for someone to suck their cock. I don’t think it’s all that common, but I’ve seen it, and it’s a possible path to the ‘male homosexual’ senses of the compounds.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen shirt-lifting-in-back used in a similar way in cruising, as an advertisement for someone to fuck you.

17 Responses to “Lifting shirts”

  1. Kikipotamus the Hobo Says:

    Wow, what an education I just got. I had never run across the term before reading this article. Now that I know what it means, I’ll probably see it three times this week. Thanks for broadening my knowledge. (Yes, I do sort of live under a rock.)

  2. Swish Exhibitionism « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] supplies sites” has recently brought me several more instances of homoerotic photos of shirt-lifting (in the more or less literal sense of the word, in which shirts are lifted), one of which (from […]

  3. More sexual back-formations « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] sexual back-formations By arnoldzwicky Having stumbled into a discussion of the synthetic compounds shirt-lifting and shirt-lifter (in several senses) and the back-formed […]

  4. Gary Says:

    I wonder if the sexual sense of shirtlifting goes back to a time (the eighteenth and nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries) when shirts were much longer and more voluminous. I could imagine that, in those days, dropping trou was not sufficient—you still had to fight your way past the shirt unless it was lifted out of the way by a co-operative partner.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Gary: interesting idea, but hard to reconcile with the apparent recency of the words. OED2’s first cite for shirtlifter is from 1966 — though it’s from a book on Australian English, which suggests that the word must have been around for a while before. But I’d be surprised if you could track it back even to the 1940s.

    But thank you, Gary, for framing your comment as a tentative suggestion, rather than as a bald assertion. For most people, the road leads very quickly from speculation to conviction.

  6. Ciaran McHale Says:

    Perhaps “shirt-lifting” is an abbreviation of “nightshirt-lifting”. A nightshirt is worn without trousers (and, I’m guessing, often without underpants) so lifting the nightshirt would be sufficient to provide access to one’s genitals or backside.

  7. arnoldzwicky Says:

    A correspondent suggests in e-mail that shirt-lifting in the sexual sense could have originated from a practice of lifting a man’s shirt up in back (to fuck him from behind). My correspondent reports that he sometimes playfully lifts his partner’s shirt this way, after which his partner (in mock scorn) charges my correspondent with being a shirt-lifter and my correspondent (in mock horror) vehemently denies the charge. Games couples play.

  8. Pants-lower « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] By arnoldzwicky Having posted on the back-formed verb shirt-lift a while ago — a verb based on the synthetic compounds […]

  9. DEFINE “SCRIMMAGE T-SHIRT” « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 2. Homoerotic coding. The model’s body is presented in such a heavily sexualized way, I just don’t know where to start. The guy comes not from the real world, but from Gayland (see the shirt-lifting discussion here). […]

  10. Collage essays: from concealment to display « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posted one of the collage essays in my piece on shirt-lifing a while […]

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  12. Update: an endnote on shirt-lifting « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] By arnold zwicky We’ve seen the display of shirt-lifting with sexual intent (explored here with some examples mostly from men’s underwear ads having gay men as their target audience; […]

  13. Underwear gods « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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  14. Annals of anatomical vocabulary « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] illustration, with some shirt-lifting thrown in to accentuate the man’s […]

  15. LOLcats and captions « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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  16. Homactu « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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