i was recently made aware of an alternate meaning of camp. apparently, in british and australian usage, it can also mean gay. this shocked me, as i couldn't see a possible connection between camp as in tents. so i went to the OED to check it out:
Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals. So as n., ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, etc. (see quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour.
hmm. so i checked out the 1909 usage:

1909 WARE Passing Eng. 61/2 Camp (Street), actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis. Probably from the French. Used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character. ‘How very camp he is.’
so, seeing it's probably from the french, i googled around for a bit, not finding much except a wiktionary entry (along with a page on wikipedia describing a descendent usage of this 1909 sense.) which all seem to corroborate that it's from the french. hence, i went to my le petit robert and under camper found the following:

SE CAMPER v. non. Se tenir en un lieu dans une attitude fière, hardie ou provocante.

To compose one's self in an arrogant, bold, or provocative manner. (my translation, feel free to correct me in the comments...)
but that's not quite gay, which is what we're looking for. well, hold up, altho we've not found strong evidence of camper meaning gay, given the last two senses of these two definitions and the history here (with a reference to Gay talk: Formerly entitled The queens' vernacular : a gay lexicon, and which also seems to imply a descent from campagne, in reference to transvestite actors strolling thru the country side.), we have enough information to infer that camp, whether from camper or campagne, is likely descended from french, and that in any case, the french camper has a sense which can be seen as similiar to the gay-friendly version of this alternative usage, camp as a style.

i'd love to hear other people's input on my analysis, and if they know anything else about the origins of this usage. i LOVE a good etymology when i can get my hands on it...

an e-mail from languagehat (solicited, i should add.) brought me back to earth on this one: the evidence is definitely inconclusive, and altho i may like the idea of this history, we really can't be sure. so don't go telling your friends about how i proved camp comes from french.


Chrissy Sparkle said...

Well, it's still very interesting, even if it is inconclusive. It's going to be a total hassle ringing all my friends to tell them you were wrong though, gees...

Does Mr. Languagehat know what the conclusive origin is then? This should be an ongoing project, you know. Zeke's Quest for the Meaning of Camp. Kinda catchy.

tehgeekmeister said...

no, it seems there's no conclusive evidence.

time to move on to the next cool word, like price/prize/praise.