You’re All Using The Term ‘Throwing Shade’ Wrong and Need to Stop Immediately

"The limits of my language," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ”means the limits of my world.” I was exposed to this quote as a freshman in college, and I understood immediately what it meant: words, phrases, and idioms have very, very particular meanings. Every construction we employ in our daily conversations has a whole body of history behind it, and that history defines how we use different phrases and aphorisms, what they mean, and what they might mean to us in the future.

I cite my single experience with Wittgenstein for only one reason, really (well, two, if you count wanting to sound like an insufferably pretentious asshole, which I do): to justify why I’m so put off by how people use the term ‘throwing shade’ online.

Usage of 'throwing shade' and 'throw shade' on Twitter since  December 28, 2012

(above: usage of ‘throw shade’ and ‘throwing shade’ on Twitter in the past four weeks)

'Throwing shade,' as defined by the authoritative online repository for modern language of the Internet age (the Urban Dictionary), seems like a relatively straight-forward term: “to talk trash about a friend or acquaintance, to publicly denounce or disrespect,” or, more colloquially, “to hate on someone for acting a fool.” The phrase has been in use since at least the early 1980s, but the term has only really enjoyed a serious revival in the past year, peaking two weeks ago with the Gawker article “Watch Michelle Obama Throw World-Historical Shade at John Boehner" which captures Michelle Obama flashing a stink-eye at Speaker Boehner on Inauguration Day

Google search volume for 'throwing shade,' January 2008 to January 2013.

(above: search volume on Google for ‘throwing shade,’ January 2008 through January 2013)

Many commenters noted that the use of the term was incorrect:

While it is a lively term “throwing shade” is not appropriate here. In this instance Michelle is definitely interacting with an Enemy whom she chooses to ignore with prejudice because she is classy and wonderful and because John Boehner is not worth the energy it takes to turn one’s head. John Boehner is the Enemy of All the Free People of Middle Earth and Michelle has no other recourse than to ignore his Necromancerty.

Throwing shade is a perfectly wonderful term of gay-vogue era that Gawker keeps desperately trying to revive with honorable intentions but incorrect usage

My Twitter feed is now full of people who didn’t read into the comments field (pro tip: always read the comments), have no idea what the term means, and use it interchangeably with ‘shit-talk’ or ‘hate on.’ But, as my gay and lesbian friends have pointed out to me, the proper use of the ‘throwing shade’ requires a bit more understanding. 

The origins of the term ‘throwing shade’ can be traced to LGBT ball culture in the 1980s. One of the earliest explanations of the phrase appears in Paris Is Burninga 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston that chronicles New York City ball culture during mid-to-late 1980s and the African America, latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Drag queen Dorian Corey explains the evolution of the term: 

"If I’m a black queen, and you’re a black queen, we can’t call each other black queens. That’s not a read that is just a fact. So we talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes. then reading became a developed form where it became shade. 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."

'Throwing shade,' then, is significantly more nuanced than conventional, aggressive shit-talking. Desson Howe was careful to draw out this distinction in his 1991 review of Paris is Burning for The Washington Post

Corey explains other voguing terminology, such as “reading” and “throwing shade.” To read is to insult imaginatively — in opposition to the blunt gay-bashing taunts of the straight world. Reading is gay-to-gay sparring. Thus, when two black queens call each other “black queen,” says Corey, “that’s not a read, that’s just a fact.”

Throwing shade is reading at a refined level; it’s the curve to the pitch. If someone says they won’t call you ugly because you already know, well, you just got thrown a shade. When enmity reaches fever point and pride is involved, it’s time for voguing. This is direct competition, when contenders take their fight to the ball floor: the equivalent of jousting, dueling or stepping outside the bar.

You’ll notice that throwing shade is defined in opposition to the directness and cruelty of gay-bashing. It’s more artfully executed, more dependent on constructing a veiled (or not-so-veiled) insult rather than relying on obvious crudities and innuendo. Throwing shade requires wielding your words like a rapier rather than a cudgel.

So why the sudden resurgence? The second coming of ‘throwing shade’ is likely rooted in the mainstreaming of gay culture, but its widespread usage is more easily tied to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show, featuring renowned drag queen RuPaul, premiered on Logo in February 2009, coinciding almost perfectly with an uptick in Google searches for ‘throwing shade’ (as noted above). But despite the show’s popularity, most outlets continue to conflate throwing shade with the basic act of shit-talking (as MSNBC did after Michelle Obama’s now-infamous eye-roll). Even The Daily Beast, in a fucking post describing the ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race Dictionary’ in 2011, oversimplified the term:

throwing shade (v.): the art of insulting (see also read)
Example: “Oh, honey. I need to duck and cover because you all bitches be throwing beaucoup shade.”—RuPaul in Season 2

RuPaul explains it *much* better herself on Drag Race (the clip, available at The Daily Beast, won’t embed on Tumblr for some reason). You don’t need Wittgenstein to get your words right. if you’re thinking about ‘throwing shade,’ or even describing something as ‘throwing shade,’ heed RuPaul’s advice: