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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

drama queen

(1990’s | journalese (arts)? | “prima donna,” “hysteric,” “sissy,” “one who has to be the center of attention”)

I had two misconceptions about this phrase: that it originated in the U.S. and that it was at first strongly associated with gay subculture. Neither LexisNexis nor Google Books supports either contention. (They do not offer definitive answers, of course, even combined.) The phrase began to appear in LexisNexis in the mid-eighties, generally in Commonwealth sources, especially Australia, Canada, and England. I found only a few instances from U.S. publications before 1990. That’s less surprising than the absence of any strong correlation with gay subculture in early uses of the phrase. Now it’s true that gay men call each other “drama queens” fairly often; I myself have heard it happen. While we’re slinging stereotypes, it’s also true that lots of gay men are active in the theater. And the association with “drag queen,” if only phonetic, seems obvious. In fact, most early uses of the phrase (i.e., pre-1995) applied to persons who were recognizably gay or thespian. But I didn’t find the concentration of early instances arising from the gay community that I expected. In 1990 both Madonna and John Cleese were quoted using the term, an unlikely pair that indicates “drama queen” was already dipping its toes into the mainstream. By 2000, it was comfortably used of all sorts of people, and the phrase was well-established. Believe it or not, Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez was recently described as “greatest drama queen in pro sports,” so any association with gayness or theater has been fully obliterated.

What does it mean? A drama queen is someone who reacts disproportionately to minor irritants or setbacks (rarely pleasures), who throws tantrums, who enjoys stirring up a fuss, especially about the way he or she is being treated, or suffering at the hands of the gods or the kid next door. They are demanding, sometimes volcanic. They express strong emotion in public in ways that may be embarrassing to bystanders, to say nothing of those close to them. Armchair psychologists have no trouble diagnosing the root cause; these people simply want attention and are prepared to go to any lengths to get it. But I suspect there’s more to it than that, at least sometimes. Drama queens may crave adrenaline more than attention, or find the strength to keep going only by whipping themselves into a frenzy.

A closely related word is “diva,” whose metaphorical use has taken off and grown since my youth. “Diva” seems like a most logical successor to “prima donna,” which is the best pre-1980 equivalent I can think of (see above). But only women and gay men can pass for divas; anyone can be a drama queen. And it’s possible to be a temporary drama queen in response to a specific situation but not the rest of the time; divahood is more a permanent state of mind. In the old days, we were more likely to use adjectives or verbs when talking about this sort of behavior. “Exaggerate.” “Too emotional.” “Overreact.” “Hysterical.” “Self-obsessed.” The last two frequently turn up near the phrase to this day, revealing that “drama queen” is always pejorative. It is a put-down, not applied to those who express what is generally understood to be legitimate anger, sorrow, indignation, etc. When you deny behaving like a drama queen, you are saying, “I’m not overdoing it. This is serious, and my strong reaction is not out of line.”

The phrase is readily used as an adjective, usually hyphenated. I saw a recent example of “drama queen” used to mean something like “exhibitionist”: “To [such drama queens], putting every single thought online is normal.” The example is due to British filmmaker Daisy Asquith, and it may represent a new frontier in meaning, the next way we will come to use the phrase, or maybe it’s a fluke.

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