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Adam West as Batman (Handout)
Adam West as Batman (Handout)

Warren Clements: Word Play

How camp became campy Add to ...

There is more to camp than summer camp. Consider last Saturday’s Globe article on Adam West, star of the 1960s series Batman and the 1966 spinoff movie.

“While The New York Times called the original movie ‘avant-camp,’” Matthew Hays wrote, “West never liked the camp label, saying it insinuated there was something homosexual hanging over the affair. ‘I never really knew the definition of camp,’ he told me last year in an interview. ‘I thought camp referred to the prostitutes who followed the Roman legions.…’”

More Word Play from Warren Clements

The Latin campus began as an open field but, like the fields, soon acquired a military overlay. In Old English, a camp was a battle or war, as in the Beowulf line “ac in campe gecrong cumbles hyrde,” translated by Seamus Heaney as “but fell in battle, their standard-bearer.” German derivatives from campus include kampf, for struggle, infamous from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

By 1528, camp referred to fortified areas where armies lived and trained. From 1584, it referred to the soldiers themselves as they moved from camp to camp. Camp followers were hangers-on who accompanied the troops to tend soldiers’ horses, strike their tents and, yes, satisfy their desires. That last sense – of prostitutes knowing a likely market when they saw one – is the one West mentioned.

In the 1600s, the military sense of camp lent its name to camp-ball, an early form of football with no limit to the number of players. William T. Spurdens wrote in 1840 of a memorable bout between Norfolk and Suffolk, played “on Diss Common, with 300 on each side … The Suffolk men, after 14 hours, were the victors. Nine deaths were the result of the contest, within a fortnight!”

It is from the Latin campus that we got campaign (originally a battle on an open field) and champion, absorbed into English in the 1200s from the Latin campio-onem, someone who competed on a field. In the 1800s, Princeton University started calling its site a campus, and people spoke of opposing camps of opinions, with some having a foot in both camps.

Ah, but what of the sense of camp as exaggeratedly effeminate, or gay, or gloriously over the top? The first print citation dates from 1909, when J. Redding Ware wrote that in Victorian slang, camp referred to “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis. Probably from the French. Used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character. ‘How very camp he is.’”

Robert Ross used the term in The Carry On Companion, his tribute to the low-brow British Carry On films. Actors Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor “have a touch of camp about their personae, even though Williams here is the supercilious know-it-all of his [Tony] Hancock days rather than the flamboyant mincing machine of later Carry Ons.”

No one is sure where this sense of camp came from. Speculation includes the French se camper (to pose) and the English dialect kemp (rough, uncouth). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable discounts one line of inquiry. “The reference is not likely to be to soldiers who in the 19th century clandestinely served as male prostitutes while camped out in Regent’s Park, London, as [is] sometimes explained.”

Camp was largely confined to theatrical slang for much of the 20th century, but in the 1960s the word was co-opted for outlandish productions that were so bad they provided a certain kind of enjoyment. High camp was knowingly atrocious. Low camp was inadvertently atrocious.

It is likely in this respect that a show such as Batman, with its deliberate overacting and self-consciously spoofing tone, was tagged as camp. As for West’s comment about “something homosexual,” that anyone would read a gay subtext into a show about two inseparable bachelors in tights is baffling.

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