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What is the Origin of the Phrase "Come Out of the Closet"?

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This week, NBA center Jason Collins announced he was gay in a cover story for Sports Illustrated. In other words, he "came out of the closet." This expression for revealing one's homosexuality may seem natural. Being in the closet implies hiding from the outside world, and the act of coming out of it implies the will to stop hiding. But though the closet has long been a metaphor for privacy or secrecy, its use with reference to homosexuality is relatively recent.

According to George Chauncey's comprehensive history of modern gay culture, Gay New York, the closet metaphor was not used by gay people until the 1960s. Before then, it doesn't appear anywhere "in the records of the gay movement or in the novels, diaries, or letters of gay men and lesbians."

"Coming out," however, has long been used in the gay community, but it first meant something different than it does now. "A gay man's coming out originally referred to his being formally presented to the largest collective manifestation of prewar gay society, the enormous drag balls that were patterned on the debutante and masquerade balls of the dominant culture and were regularly held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, and other cities." The phrase "coming out" did not refer to coming out of hiding, but to joining into a society of peers. The phrase was borrowed from the world of debutante balls, where young women "came out" in being officially introduced to society.

The gay debutante balls were a matter of public record and often covered in the newspaper, so "coming out" within gay society often meant revealing your sexual orientation in the wider society as well, but the phrase didn't necessarily carry the implication that if you hadn't yet come out, you were keeping it a secret. There were other metaphors for the act of hiding or revealing homosexuality. Gay people could "wear a mask" or "take off the mask." A man could "wear his hair up" or "let his hair down," or "drop hairpins" that would only be recognized by other gay men.

It is unclear exactly when gay people started using the closet metaphor, but "it may have been used initially because many men who remained 'covert' thought of their homosexuality as a sort of 'skeleton in the closet.'" It may also have come from outsiders who viewed it that way. It seems that "coming out of the closet" was born as a mixture of two metaphors: a debutante proudly stepping into the arms of a community and a shocking secret being kept in hiding. Now the community is the wider community, and the secret is no longer shocking. "Coming out" is a useful phrase, but it need not imply a closet.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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