Gays of Yore

This randy Victorian slang term is just too gay to function

· Updated on June 11, 2024

In 1882, at the start of his North American tour, a young Oscar Wilde wrote to his friend, the British socialite and art dealer Norman Forbes-Robertson, about the many excitements he encountered in the United States. But one of these was significantly more pleasurable than any other.

“I have ‘Boy’ [champagne] at intervals…and generally behave as I always have behaved—‘dreadfully,'” Wilde wrote, describing the life of luxury he experienced in America’s finest hotels where he was pampered beyond belief. In Montreal, Wilde responded to his friend’s plans to greet him in Canada with excitement. “You and I will sit and drink ‘Boy’ in our room,” he wrote, “and watch the large posters of our names.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: what on God’s green Earth is ‘Boy’? Is he saying what I think he’s saying?

Well, no: while we don’t know with any certainty when Wilde started being intimate with other men, it’s largely assumed to have first taken place after the author was married and in his 30s, with his friend and confidante Robbie Ross. So although it would be incredibly on brand for Wilde to write openly about “having Boy” on the reg, he was actually talking about another gay favorite: champagne.

It’s not clear when champagne started to be known as “boy” or in some cases “the boy,” but we do know that the term lasted up into the 1920s, if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be believed.

“Champagne was then The Widow,” wrote the British fiction writer William Pett Ridge in his 1923 book A Story Teller: Forty Years in London. “The Widow,” a shorthand still used today, referenced the woman on the label of the upscale champagne brand Veuve Cliquot, which translates to “the old widow.” But at some point, Pett Ridge explains, it switched to “The Bubbly,” and then to just “The Boy.” The origin of the term seems to come from the fact that when gentlemen would order wine or champagne at private clubs, they would have to flag down the waiter—often a young man or boy—and so the cries of “boy” became synonymous with ordering champagne.

The term shows up in Wilde’s letters from the 1880s, and also in the popular magazine Punch, which often ridiculed Wilde for his flamboyant style of dress and manner. Yet it’s in Punch that we find some of the gayer manifestations of this slang.

“He’ll nothing drink but ‘B. & S.’ and big magnums of ‘the Boy’,” one 1882 article states, while another has a character saying: “Of course, beastly dinner, but very good boy. Had two magnums of it.”

A magnum at the time referred to measurements of wine—one large magnum equates to about 2 regular 750ml bottles of wine. But come on…magnums of boy? How gay can you get? Especially during a time when being gay could land you in jail for years.

Famously, that’s exactly what happened to Wilde. After living his life as an all-but-out gay man, one misspelled calling card from his evil lover Bosie’s father started up the trial of the century, during which Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor at several grim Victorian penitentiaries. When he got out in 1897, he was a changed man. His health had sharply declined, and his previous disgrace meant he no longer had money to spend on his basic needs, much less magnums of champagne.

Still, he found a way to “[die] beyond [his] means,” legendarily so. With some help from loyal friends like Robbie Ross and Reginald Turner, he relocated to France and was able to keep the Boy flowing even in those dark days. “I will take care not to die on the wrong date,” he promised Ross in a letter just a year before his death in November 1900 as a result of meningitis due to chronic ear infections.

Wilde’s story may not have ended happily, but he left a legacy that all queer artists still benefit from today. So this Pride, consider raising a glass of Boy, The Widow, or if you prefer, just plain Bubbly to this titan of the gay arts.

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