Nuancy Nancy

For we will sit together as happy as can be
For I’ll tickle Nancy, and Nancy’ll tickle me

— Uncle Dave Macon’s “I’ll Tickle Nancy” (apparently first recorded in 1935)

Yesterday’s (7/31) Wayno/Piraro Bizarro strip, in which Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy character takes up textual analysis (Wayno’s title:”Beating Around the Bushmiller”), explaining the intricacies of cartoon characters to her buddy Sluggo (and of course the three rocks):


(#1) On the Bushmiller rocks, see my 9/2/17 posting “Three rocks”, with a Zippy strip in which the rocks talk (and if you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

Pretty much the purest form of cartoon self-reference: a cartoon character expounding on the nature of cartoon characters. (Also note Sluggo’s body language, with his hands in his pockets, often conveying disaffection or suspicion.)

What follows is about Nancys and, especially, nancies.

The Bushmiller Nancy. From my 2/11/19 posting “Age cannot wither them”: “Nancy and Sluggo are always and forever 8 years old” — with a section on the Nancy strip, a great favorite of Bill Griffith’s that gets frequent coverage in his Zippy strips.


(#2) A 1995 commemorative stamp

nancy (boy): nasty but kind of quaint. Now into the swamp. The short story, from NOAD:

noun nancy: informal, offensive (also nancy boy) an effeminate or homosexual man. ORIGIN late 19th century: pet form [Nan or Nancy] of the given name Ann.

The corresponding weapon of verbal abuse used against me as a child was fairy (boy): I was able to fend off physical abuse with crazed aggression against the bullies, but the verbal abuse rained down on me pretty much constantly for years. My offense was not actual effeminacy (at the age of 8 I had a flagrantly effeminate buddy, and I understood that our ways were very different — though he did give me an early appreciation of opera; his intense enthusiasm for women’s high fashion didn’t take for me, but then you don’t expect your friends to share all your interests), but failure to conform to normative masculinity: I was nerdy and academically oriented; artistic (all that classical piano); deeply unathletic; profoundly uninterested in sports fandom; unaggressive; and given to friendships with girls.

Boys form themselves into loosely organized gangs, which enforce norms of masculinity amongst themselves; and those all-male groups continue into male associations in adolescence and adulthood. I have never been acceptable to these male groups, though I’ve sometimes been able to patch together a spot for myself off to the side, offering expertise, entertainment, or amiability.

In any case, a male who doesn’t fit these norms of masculinity is perceived as feminine — this is a binary world — and treated as “no better than a woman” (the extraordinary devaluing of women is central to the whole business), which is actually quite alarming, since fems and fags and all the rest of us deviants are living exemplars of what could happen if you don’t satisfy the requirements of the male codes.

(Note: my sense of myself has always been, uncomplicatedly, that I am both male and masculine, just a non-standard form of masculine in which queerness, as defined by sexual desire,  takes center stage. I am baffled by people who insist that my gender is non-binary. I have no problem with trans people and non-binary people, but I don’t think I’m among their number.)

But back to the slurs. As I said, fairy (boy) was the verbal weapon of my childhood, in a particular time and social place. I recognized at the time that nancy (boy) had been used as the rough equivalent in my parents’ generation, but it sounded kind of quaint to me. (Others will have had different experiences, of course.) Not long after, fag / faggot took over as the most widespread verbal weapon. By then, my response was to embrace it, throw it in my oppressors’ face, and normalize it. Ditto with fairy (boy). I am a faggot fairy — oh, a pansy too — don’t mess with me.

nancy, alas, is lost to me, as just too quaint to have any resonance, However, it is clearly alive for others. So now, three ways of treating the slur.

Reporting the slur. From the History News Network “Who are You Calling Nancy Boy?”, a review by Bruce Chadwck on 5/6/13:

The ‘nance,’ or Nancy Boy, was a gay burlesque character from the 1930s who brought guffaws and belly laughs as he pranced about the stage, creating campy scenes and sketches of gay life. He put on an outrageous show and audiences loved him. In the late 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, fearful of how the lurid burlesque shows would make his city look in the upcoming World’s Fair of 1939, cracked down on the houses.

Part of LaGuardia’s anger was aimed at the Nance, whom critics said created audiences of lusty gay men having sex in the dark balconies of the burlesque emporiums. It was an outrage, the Mayor said, and police began swooping down on burlesque shows, closing many and forcing others to drop the nance act or greatly curb it.

The Nance, that just opened in New York, is the very funny, deeply emotional, and winning, story about that crackdown.


(#2) Nathan Lane in the play

The play stars the marvelously gifted Broadway veteran Nathan Lane as Chauncey Miles, a veteran Nance who worked at the Irving Place theater (an actual theater in the ‘20s where burlesque shows were staged and nances worked). He is set in his life on stage and off stage as a homosexual who prowls clubs, parks, and even Horn and Hardart cafeterias for men. One night he meets Ned, a married man from Buffalo, and falls in love with him. The plays tell dual story of their love, and problems, and the fate of Chauncey’s burlesque show. It is a poignant look at gay life in the Depression.

Embracing the slur. The bad (recent) news first:

From the hoodline site: “Beauty supply e-tailer Nancy Boy closes Hayes Valley storefront permanently after 15 years” by Teresa Hammerl on 5/5/20.


(#3) The shop in better times

Because coronavirus.

About the shop, from the SFGate site (SF Chronicle), “Nancy Boy caters to the picky” by Lord Martine on 2/2/02:

Its name chimes like the new fantastic — even though it’s old cockney slang [so the writer claimed, but I see nothing in collections of Cockney rhyming slang]. Its logo is pinchable. The product itself comes with high-performance claims and smells fabulous, naturally. But will gay men buy it?


(#4) A bar of soap and an elegant wooden soapdish from the company

Nancy Boy, a modest line of hair and skin care products packaged and marketed specifically for gay men, “was created to stop beauty-product aficionados dead in their tracks. And that, the press release hyping the line reads, “goes from the consummate style-chaser to the pickiest of boyfriends.”

We’re nancy boys, and we’re fabulous. Love it.

Agonizing over the identity. From Wikipedia:


(#5) One cover for the song

“Nancy Boy” is a song by British alternative rock band Placebo, released on 20 January 1997, as the fourth single from their debut album self-titled album, released on Hut Records. As with their first single “Come Home”, the single edit is a re-recorded version, noticeably different from the album version. “Nancy Boy” contains themes of drugs, sex, gender confusion and bisexuality.

Some lyrics:

Alcoholic kind of mood
Lose my clothes
Lose my lube
Cruising for a piece of fun
Looking out for number one
Different partner every night
So narcotic outta sight
What a gas
what a beautiful ass

[chorus] And it all breaks down at the role reversal
Got the muse in my head she’s universal
Spinnin’ me round she’s coming over me
And it all breaks down at the first rehearsal
Got the muse in my head she’s universal
Spinnin’ me round she’s coming over me

Kind of buzz that lasts for days
Had some help from insect ways
Comes across all shy and coy
Just another nancy boy
Woman man or modern monkey
Just another happy junkie
Fifty pounds
Press my button
Going down

You can watch a live performance here.

A world away from elegant soap and even from the nances of the burlesque stage.

5 Responses to “Nuancy Nancy”

  1. Bill Stewart Says:

    Have you seen the “new” Nancy strip? She’s a real curmudgeon. On another note, the darker version [of] self-protection from being bullied by the butch-pack is addiction: “I’ll hurt myself in my own way so they won’t”. It’s a raw theory, might hold some truth.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I haven’t seen the “new” Nancy strips, though I’ll now try to check them out.

      Your darker version of protection from the bullying makes some sense: the target accepts and internalizes the contempt and hatred of the bullies, and punishes himself.

      It took me many years to get past the messages of the bullies and to come to embrace all of their verbal weapons as celebrations of my positive identity: I am, in fact, a faggot, a fairy, a pansy, a queer, a nancy boy, all of it, I’m everything they fear, and I revel in it, I hope to be the best goddam fucking faggot they’ll ever come in contact with. I happen not to be noticeably effeminate, but I’m gay as fuck, and I wear the t-shirt to advertise that fact. (I’m not going to ask nicely for my rights, because of course no such appeal ever got anyone their rights; for that you have to make trouble.)

      It helps, of course, that, I am also a genuinely nice guy.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Cockney slang, but not rhyming slang, I think. For example, these entries, which seem like UK slang, maybe Cockney:
    http://www.thornton-cleveleys.co.uk/cockney.htm
    naff – cheap and nasty
    nancy boy – a gay man.
    (the) nick – police station, or prison.
    naff off – “go away”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, thank you. So it is, or maybe was, certainly present in Cockney slang. The implication in the quotation was that this was the *source* of the widely used slang, and for that I see no evidence. GDoS has entries a number of variants glossed as ‘an effeminate man, a homosexual’: nan boy, nan, nance, nancy, nancy boy, nanny. Early cites come from many places.

      There is, however, a wonderful entry for the proper name Nancy Dawson:

      legendary 19C prostitute (d. 1767), about whom a sailor’s hornpipe was written. Fraser & Gibbons cite her as ‘a celebrated former hornpipe dancer of Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres’

      and from that, Nancy Dawson ‘an effeminate youth, a homosexual’, first cite in a 1889-90 dictionary of jargon and cant:

      a name for a molly, an effeminate youth, apathetic &c. A recent sketch of the mashers of the present day […] represents two of the fraternity, who are very intimate, always calling one another by girls’ names

      Compare modern “Oh, Mary!”

      No doubt Nancy has been fixed on for this purpose by many men on different occasions.

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