A-lists and B-lists

Following up on yesterday’s posting “In the morning: the B list actor and the scholar”, Gadi Niram asked on Facebook:

Do you know where the term B list comes from? I tried searching, but I didn’t find anything. My assumption is that it comes from casting lists in the old studio system.

Well, the A list / B list usage started with lists of things ranked according to importance, but it really took off when it got a foothold in the entertainment business generally (the A sides and B sides of records might have played a role in this) — and then, via the expression A-list gay, we got the count noun A-gay to refer to a gay “type” and to members of a gay male subculture. (There’s almost always a gay angle to linguistic topics, just as there’s almost always a linguistic angle to gay topics.)

I know this thanks to entries in OED3 that have been added in this century (2002, 2009, 2011). All praise to lexicographers!

The relevant OED entries, with citations in full and some comments in brackets from me:

OED3 (Sept. 2002) on the noun A-list:

1. The first in a series of lists, esp. lists ranked in order of preference or significance.

1890 (title) Returns of persons on the general A list [Dublin Metropolitan Police report].

1928 Jrnl. Exper. Psychol. 2 306 Half of the class practised first the A-list or vocalization-list.

1963 L. P. Curtis Coercion & Conciliation in Ireland App. 437 The first or ‘A’ list contained the list of the dozen top nationalists who were to be ‘shadowed’ by plain-clothesmen in both countries.

1992 Independent 9 May (Mag.) 42/3 To get a record on to..the B-list..means it will be played eight or nine times a week or, better still, the A-list, which ensures about 15 plays a week. [record industry]

2. U.S.A (notional) list comprising only the most celebrated, sought-after, or high-ranking individuals, esp. in the entertainment industry or the media; (with the) the people on this list regarded collectively; the members of a social, professional, or (now usually) celebrity elite.

1935 S. Walker Mrs. Astor’s Horse 10 Miss Cutting has an A and B list of débutantes and stag lines… She will not burden the members of the A list with secondraters.

1950 J. D. MacDonald in Thrilling Wonder Stories [a sci-fi magazine] Oct. 26/2 I suggest that we contact the A-list of all League personnel and advise them to ready themselves for basic flight procedure.

1976 Newsweek 13 Sept. 88/2 You can slip from the A list to the B list and beyond very quickly… One day you’re demanding films, the next you’re asking could I please have them. [acting]

1987  R. Shilts And Band played On (1988) ii. iii. 26 On Fire Island, he lived in the house with Enno, Nick, and a few other handsome men who made the A-list of every major island party. [see A-gay below]

2007 Eve July 71/3 If you’ve ever glanced in the mirror, wishing away your laughter lines, spare a thought for the A-list, whose success hinges on how they look. [probably a reference to celebrities]

OED3 (Sept. 2002) on the noun B-list (orig. U.S.):

1. The second in a series of lists, esp. lists ranked in order of preference or significance.

1928  M. C. Barlow in  Jrnl. Exper. Psychol. 2 306 For pupils who practised the B-list first, instructions were given which differed.

1947  W. W. Wilcox Farmer in Second World War v. 66 Cotton was placed on the B list and did not receive any priority in fertilizer use.

1963  L. P. Curtis Coercion & Conciliation in Ireland App. 438 The first or ‘A’ list contained the list of the dozen top nationalists… The second or ‘B’ list was composed in 1890 of thirteen men who were either active Parnellite members or promoters of the league and the Plan.

1992  Independent 9 May (Mag.) 42/3 What a plugger really wants is to get a record on to..either the B-list, which means it will be played eight or nine times a week, or, better still, the A-list, which ensures about 15 plays a week. [record industry]

2. Any (notional) list comprising moderately celebrated, sought-after, or high-ranking individuals, esp. in the entertainment industry or the media; a prominent but not elite social, professional, or celebrity group.

1935 S. Walker Mrs. Astor’s Horse 10 Miss Cutting has an A and B list of débutantes and stag lines: the two lists rarely if ever meet.

1976 Newsweek (Nexis) 13 Sept. 86 You can slip from the A list to the B list and beyond very quickly. [entertainment industry]

1985 Toronto Star 9 Dec.  c1 Nash and his wife..host three holiday season brunches at their midtown apartment. Guests, mainly from the show business field, jokingly wonder if they’re on the A, B, or C list. [show business]

2000 M. Howe Turkey Today vi. 67 Toni didn’t get to show President Clinton Ephesus… She was charged with the B list of VIPs.

OED3 (June 2011) on the noun A-side, under noun A

(the music recorded on) the more important side of a single. Cf. B-side

1937 Down Beat Feb. 14/1 The ‘A’ side is ‘Rockin’ Chair’, which was originally coupled with ‘Barnacle Bill, the Sailor’.

1942 Billboard 28 Feb. 61 The A side is a catchy melody.

1968 Guardian 5 Jan. 18/4 The seven-man band arrived at the London recording studio to make the ‘A’ side of a new ‘single’.

1984 Sounds 1 Dec. 6/5 The A-side features the inimitable talents of Jim Thirlwell on lead vocal.

2003 J. Dawson & S. Propes 45 RPM xvii. 138 The A-side is surf-rock’s national anthem.

OED3 (June 2009) on the noun A-gay (orig. U.S.):

A prominent, wealthy, or influential gay man; a member of a (notional) elite comprising such people. [Wiktionary: (LGBT slang) An A-list gay; an affluent, well-connected, upwardly mobile gay man or woman.]

1977 New West 5 Oct. 75/2 These new fashion show trendies are… the moneyed couples in their thirties, singles, ‘A’ gays — whoever — who like to get loaded, partake of the bubbly, and scream for the emerging grande dames of fashion.

1980 A. Maupin More Tales of City 33 The A-Gays could talk about whoever was tooting coke in the bathroom.

1997 Face Apr. 187/2 He gained his entrée into A-gay culture, and he spent his summers partying on Fire Island.

2003 Attitude Jan. 93/1 It’s also a good place to grab yourself an A-gay at the ‘Fruits in Suits’ nights.

[additional quotes from Wiktionary:

2003 Justin McGuinness Footprint Morocco The latter is long past its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, while Marrakech continues to attract wealthy A-gays.

2003 Michael S Piazza Queeries‎ We who suffered the pain of playground exclusion now practice an enforced segregation with an effectiveness that designates certain members of our community as A-gays and marks the rest as inferior.]

And in the news, from Philly magazine, “The Union League Is Philly’s Hottest New Gay Club: How the A-Gays of the city’s premiere power club are making clout in town a little more fabulous” by Richard Rys on 1/2/13:

A-gays at the Union League in Philadelphia

(I’d hoped to find a photo from the A-gay scene in the 1993 tv movie of And the Band Played On, but no success.)

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