How to Throw Shade

Cristen Conger

On Jan. 21, 2013, President Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second term, and the term "throwing shade" officially entered the mainstream lexicon, courtesy of First Lady Michelle Obama. In a clip from the post-inauguration luncheon that quickly went viral, the FLOTUS distinctly rolls her eyes in response to something said by her neighbor at the table and political thorn in her husband's side, House majority leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). Who knows what words were actually exchanged; her head shake and eye roll spoke loudly enough for the entire Internet to hear her un-amusement. As a result, headlines quickly concurred that Michelle Obama was "throwing shade" at Boehner:

I first began noticing "throwing shade" popping up around the Internet in the month or so preceding the Michelle Obama's eye roll. All of a sudden, "throwing shade" had become the trendy new online catchphrase for general mean-girlishness. Consider, for instance, the Jezebel headline "Mariah Carey Throws Major Shade at Nicki Minaj During Barbara Walters Interview." The "shade" Jezebel was referring to was Carey quipping that she didn't realize her fellow American Idol co-host sings. Burn.

But an unfriendly dig like that isn't really what's meant by throwing shade. That's because throwing shade is a far more subtle art than basic trash talking. Drag queen RuPaul, who's been credited with bringing shade into the pop culture via his Logo channel reality series "RuPaul's Drag Race," emphasizes that effectively throwing shade "takes a bit of creativity," much like the art of effective drag. And speaking of drag, the term often is thought to have originated in the drag community, largely thanks to the 1990 documentary on Harlem drag balls "Paris Is Burning." Dorian Corey, the film's de facto narrator and legendary drag queen explains that "throwing shade" is, as recounted Gawker's Rich Juzwiak:

"Shade is, 'I don't tell you you're ugly, but I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly.' And that's shade."

So considering the finesse involved with throwing shade, there's a slim chance that people are actually doing it more, despite its uptick in usage. Instead, trading insults is simply being mislabeled as shade throwing more often. And while I don't see any major problem with the Internet reappropriating this bit of vintage slang, it's worth knowing where language comes from, and in the case of "throwing shade," the answer is not 1980s drag culture. While the term took on a new life of its own in the everyday parlance of drag, it traces back further to black communities in the early 20th century. Grant Barrett, slang lexicographer and host of the radio program "A Way With Words," notes that "throwing shade" goes back to 1925.

This term has is most often associated with Black English, but it is also said to be used among gay and cross-dressing performers and club-goers. Etymological Note: Probably related to shade, v., which means "to defeat, to outdo" and dates to at least as early as 1925 and also to the far more common put in/throw in the shade with the same meaning.

So going back to Michelle Obama and her alleged shade throwing, did the FLOTUS actually do just that? First, let's consider the definition of the related phrases "casting something into shade" and "throwing something into shade" from A Collection of Confusable Phrases, "to make something appear insignificant by contrast of superior quality." In that case, no, the First Lady was not, in fact, throwing shade -- although that doesn't make that eye roll any less epic. Rather, throwing shade, it would seem, involves no direct dissing or nonverbal dismal. The most effective way to throw shade is to simply be one's most fabulous, superior quality self. So in a way, FLOTUS fans could argue that she was throwing shade on Boehner by sheer proximity.