Friday, 15 June 2012

Travesties and Transvestites

Sir William Davenant (who was quite possibly Shakespeare's illegitimate son, and quite certainly his godson) wrote a play about theatre life in London in the early 1660s. It takes the mickey out of the latest theatrical fads. A playwright asks an actor:

Playwright: What think you
Of Romances travesti?

Actor: Explain yourself.

Playwright: The garments of our Fathers you must wear
The wrong side outward, and in time it may
Become a fashion.

Because travesty was originally a style of theatre where people dressed funny. So you might take the Iliad or whatever and perform it wearing silly clothes and with silly verse. The playwright continues:

Playwright: You shall present the actions of the Heroes
Which are the chiefest themes of Tragedy)
In verse burlesque.

Actor: Burlesque and travesti? These are hard words,
And may be French, but not Law French.
Take heed, sir, what you say; you may be questioned for it.
We would do nothing, sir, but what is legal.

Anyway, you'd have a travesty of the Iliad or a travesty of King Arthur and then the word moved gently from meaning parody to meaning generally inferior version. But its root, etymologically, is the Latin trans (meaning across or different) and vestire (meaning to dress). Much later, in the 20th century, when psychiatrists were trying to think of a posh latinate way of saying cross-dresser, they took exactly the same roots, and made transvestite.


A hat-tip to the Antipodean for pointing this out to me.

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