Queer as a Chocolate Orange

Dominic Green takes us through the history of the word “Queer”

Dr Green's Dictionary

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


In 1973, Anthony Burgess wrote in the New Yorker that he first had heard the phrase queer as a clockwork orange in a London pub before the Second World War: “It is an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.” Elsewhere, Burgess claimed to have heard it in an Army barracks. He either misheard it or heard a malapropism. The likely source was queer as a Chocolate Orange; the Terry’s Chocolate Works had launched its strange fruit in 1932.

The sense of queer as unnatural is first attested in print in 1508. The original meaning (strange, odd, unusual in appearance or character, possibly sick) still pertains, albeit ironically, as in Stanley Holloway’s 1959 monologue, “My word, you do look queer”.

In eighteenth-century slang, to feel queer was to be drunk. Demotic Londoners described odd behaviour as queer as Dick’s hatband (1835). Those who went off the straight and narrow through debt, delinquency or sickness resided on Queer Street (1837). To avoid it, the Cockney salesman was wary of the rival who queered his pitch (1846). Queer as a nine-bob note still circulates, after inflation, as queer as a three-pound note. So does queer as a coot, which the slang authority Jonathon Green attributes to Julian Maclaren-Ross, a frequenter of London pubs before, during and after the Second World War.

By the late Eighties the gay rights’ movement had publicly revalued queer as an affirmation

The OED attributes the first written use of queer as a pejorative for a homosexual man to 1894. The pioneer was perhaps the most famous queer-baiter in British history, the Marquess of Queensberry. The author of the rules of boxing is not known to have graduated to queer-bashing, though he did accuse Oscar Wilde of “posing as a somdomite [sic]”. Yet Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang dates this usage to around 1914, and mostly in the United States. This is intriguing, as the contemporaneous rise of “gay” as an insult has been traced to Australia, another society of manly settlers. Did “gay”, like queer, begin in the Mother Country and bloom in coarser climes?

By the late Eighties the gay rights’ movement had publicly revalued queer as an affirmation; the direct-action group Queer Nation was founded in New York in 1990. Today all non-heterosexuals can identify as genderqueer. A straight ally may self-identify as culturally queer and object to queerbaiting, the marketing of films and television series to queer and straight-ally audiences by hinting at queer content without actually delivering. The academic field of Queer Studies specialises in queering its objects of study, as in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (1994).

Indian cricketers may yet adopt queer. In 2015, Sankaran Krishna published an academic study of India vs Australia matches, “Queering the pitch: Race, class and gender in the Indo-Australian encounter”. The title recurs in Ronojoy Sen’s 2018 article for the Times of India on “fate in cricket and Anglo bias in defining a ‘sporting’ wicket”. The Marquess of Queensberry would have had a rule for that.

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