Nelly and Nancy

E-mail from a fem friend and colleague in the UK — the personal details are important — on 2/28:

I was thinking recently about the word nelly. It’s another Americanism I think. But it gets used quite a lot. Is it interchangeable with faggy? Or does it have different connotations? Interesting that your term is butch fagginess, not butch nelliness. I wonder why.

There’s a Page on this blog about my postings on what I’ve called butch fagginess, about butch queers playing flagrantly with the trappings of fagginess. So, one of the many forms of f-gayness — my friend’s effeminate presentation of self being another, and the character Emory’s pure essence of tough fag in the  1970 film Boys in the Band being still another. From my 7/28/21 posting “Today’s garment faggotry”:

faggot has come to be used by some within the gay community as a term of opprobrium or outright contempt for “bad gay men”, men whose actions and behaviors would tend to embarrass the community. Notably, what I’ve come to call f-gays: men … variously characterized by critics as

effeminate, fem, femme, flamboyant, flaming, fag, faggy, faggot, fairy, fairy-boy, camp, campy, mincing, prissy, nelly, pansy, nancy, nancy-boy, swish, stereotypical, gay-acting, too gay [list somewhat edited from the original posting]

And a devaluing of men who prefer the receptive role in anal intercourse: guys who like to get fucked, in brief. (Once again the attitudes represent a flight from (perceived) femininity in any of its forms.)

My 3/9 response (yes, I move very very slowly these days):

Well, no label is entirely satisfactory, labels can’t be. If you need one, you have to pick, and then live with its imperfections.

I didn’t choose nelly, because the word is, to my ear, quaint and old-fashioned.

I chose faggy because the adjective (and the nouns fag and faggot) have been used prominently, at least in the US, not only as insults from outside our community, but also within the community to express contempt for “bad gays”  [see above] — bad because they are perceived as effeminate or flamboyant (“good” gays are supposed to be just like straight people, except for the objects of their desire and their sexual practices).

I don’t want just to normalize homosexuality, I want to normalize faggotry and effeminacy in all their forms, and using the tainted vocabulary as everyday labels is part of that project. [This is now an entirely aspirational enterprise; I no longer have the time to finish an intellectual project, much less embark on a new one.] Nelly wouldn’t do that for me — it’s way too niche — but faggy is a good choice, at least if you’re American. (Pansy and nancy(-boy) are like nelly for me, and fairy(-boy) sees to be going rapidly out of style; on the other hand, sissy is on its way up, at least in the US, so butch sissiness might have worked.)

Rooting through recent revisions of the OED, I see that the adjective nelly does appear to be primarily an American thing (though the OED doesn’t label it as such), while the noun nelly (There were a lot of nellies prancing at the parade — invented example) appears to be used in both BrE and AmE (though I don’t think I’ve ever actually used nelly as a noun).

From my rooting in the dictionaries.

from GDoS on adj. nellie (also nelly):

very effeminate [1st cite 1964 in a lexicon; then cites through 2005; two straight writers (Lenny Bruce, Thom Jones), three gay (Reynolds Price, Christopher Bram, Edmund White); the item is not marked as US, but all the cites are American]

from OED3 (Sept. 2003) on n. and adj. nelly (also nellie):

A. n. 1. colloquial. derogatory. An effeminate or homosexual man; (more generally) a silly, ineffectual, or fussy person; a sissy [7 cites, from 1931 through 2000, 4 of them BrE; only 2 from gay writers]

B. adj. Effeminate, affected, fussy, silly [6 cites, from 1960 through 1991, all AmE; mostly from gay writers or reporting on gay usage]

Before there was Nellie / Nelly, there was Nancy — and nancy is widespread in BrE (poof / pouf / poofter is almost exclusively BrE). Both Nelly and Nancy are women’s names used for generic reference.

from GDoS on the noun nancy / Nancy:

1 [from early 19th century on, used for women’s buttocks; for buttocks; for the vagina; among the cites is 1976 Pat Conroy The Great Santorini He refers to his penis as Mr. Cannon and her vagina as Miss Nancy] … then 3 (orig. US) implying weakness or effeminancy [from the female name] (a) an effeminate male homosexual [cites from 1828 — yes, 1828 — on] (b) an effeminate or weak-willed person [cites from 1935]

on entertaining derivatives from this noun:

adj. nancified, adv. nancifully, noun nancitude [1936 ‘George Orwell’ Keep the Aspidistra Flying A nice-looking boy, though, for all of his Nancitude]

on the adj. nancy:

effeminate (usu. homosexual) [cites from 1936 on; among them 1991 John Osborne Dejavu A pack of Nancy friends hot from some runaway gala for Aids Concern]

on the verb nancy:

often constr. with about, around, to act in an effeminate manner [cites from 1989 on]

and on the noun nancy boy:

an effeminate man, a homosexual [cites from early 20th century on; among them 1931 Eric Blair (‘George Orwell’) ‘Hop-Picking Diary’ He and some others […] had discovered one of their number to be a ‘Pouf’ or Nancy Boy]

Equine digression. Cobbled together from several idiom dictionaries on Whoa, Nellie / Nelly!, an expression originally involving Nellie / Nelly as a generic name for a horse:

(1) Said to any person, thing, or animal (especially a horse) that one is trying to get under control or coax into slowing down, conveying ‘wait! stop!’.
(2) An exclamation of surprise or astonishment, especially when something is more intense than one expected.

The equine uses of Nelly/Nellie appear to have mixed with human uses of Emma and then Nelly / Nelly as generic names for troublesome women. From the Idiomation site (“Historically Speaking: Making sense of it all”) on 1/8/22:

before Nellie, Emma was the number one trouble maker in society. In fact, she caused so much trouble there was a popular song back in 1877 by vaudeville entertainer and songwriter, Gus Williams (19 July 1848 – 16 January 1915) and published by Louis P. Goullaud (23 November 1841 – 7 December 1919) of Boston titled, “Whoa, Emma!” It became a fast favorite of a number of hard-working people as well as to music hall singers and vaudevillians alike.

Other songs followed, and eventually Emma was replaced by Nellie / Nelly; there are, in any case, 19th-century American cites for both names.

Picture gallery. F-gay covers a gigantic territory of presentations of self, united pretty much only by the hostility and contempt of normatively masculine men (‘George Orwell’ returned to the theme on a number of occasions).

There are young men who present themselves with various of the trappings and behavioral inventories of women (while identifying themselves as boys), sometimes using the label femboy or sissyboy. The FEMBOYS ARE THE FUTURE -shirt (available from TeePublic in a number of colors, but of course soft pink is the way to go):

(#1) There are a fair number of men who identify as straight but find themselves strongly drawn to femboys as sexual partners; the world is complex

Stunningly different are the butch faggy guys, with a strongly masculine physical presence undercut by campy slogans, fetishwear in shocking pink, and the like:

(#2) Cropped Tee from Barcode Berlin, screaming “I’m queer! And butch! And that’s wonderful! You too?”

And then pure Classic Faggot: two shots of Cliff Gorman as Emory in Boys in the Band:

(#3) A tough shell of defiant total faggotry: “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?”; the whole package — the eyes (a perpetual side-eye), the hand gestures (conventionalized limp wrists) and stance, the voice, the campy talk

(#4) Emory and Michael; I’m inclined to see Emory as the moral center of the film, uncompromisingly true to the very public identity he’s constructed for himself and without guile


6 Responses to “Nelly and Nancy”

  1. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    One of my college room-mates came out (to himself and to the rest of the world) after more than 20 years of marriage. He told me he knew nothing about the gay world, and set out to learn. I remember him telling me about learning how to do the limp-wrist thing. (Fast-forwarding for a moment, he’s been with the same partner for at least 30 years.)

    I asked him once what the preferred word for “effeminate” (a word I don’t like), and he replied ” ‘nelly’ – but don’t you use it!”) That was quite a while ago, and perhaps usage has changed.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Part of the problem with *labels* for f-gayness (in all of its many manifestations) is the shame that attends effeminacy (normative masculinity poisons everything outside its narrow focus as “feminine” and meriting contempt), so that labels constantly become contaminated and have to be replaced — or adopted proudly and defiantly by a subcommunity (but the labels maintain their abusive or disdainful values outside this community).

      Then there are the behavioral repertoires associated with f-gayness (like the “gay voice”, campy vocabulary, the limp-wrist gesture, hip-tilting, gay side-eye and eye rolls, etc.). If a man picks these up, he probably does so unconsciously (though occasionally this happens through conscious modeling and practice, as with your friend and the limp-wrist gesture), and the resulting complexities are all those of linguistic code-switching, with some much more adept at behavioral code-switching than others. (I admire some people’s abilities to switch, quickly and with little thought, between codes, linguistic or behavioral, that are hugely divergent, but my relative inflexibility in these matters makes me way too un-masculine (characterized as “feminine” or “queer” or whatever) for some male communities and simultaneously way too “straight-acting” for some gay subcommunities. (You learn to find spots where presentations of self that you are comfortable with are acceptable and to stick to those spots as much as possible — though everybody has to confront hostile social contexts.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Meanwhile, Bob, thank you for your comment. The only response of any kind I’ve gotten to this posting, on this blog, on Facebook, or or Twitter. WordPress maintains that only 5 people have viewed this posting. I understand that the number 5 can’t possibly be right — to judge from responses, most of my postings seem to get about 40 readers when they appear — and I understand that I’m very much a niche taste, but still this is immensely dispiriting, and I wonder whether it’s worth the huge effort it takes to craft these things.)

      • zipperbear Says:

        I thought your posting was well worth reading, but I had nothing to add. It’s the old paradox of good things being driven out by bad or mediocre things (software upgrades producing an income stream while fine products have no room for improvement, or media with negative feedback being valued as “engagement”).

      • J B Levin Says:

        I sometimes get in the habit of ‘like’ing everything I read that I don’t hate or disagree with, but I continually try to withhold that action for things that have some special meaning for me, especially in this blog, less so on, say, twitter, where you can only express one opinion without commenting. You may take it as read that I have viewed everything you’ve posted within a couple of days (though I may skim some of the entries fairly quickly) and don’t consider it wasted time or effort.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        This is almost comical, but JBL and Zipperbear are two of the 40 or so reliably regular readers, even if they don’t always let me know they’re reading, so it’s charming that they’re the first two to reassure me about my experience of writing this blog as like lecturing to empty rooms.

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