Matt said: I'd like to know about the British slang word for gay men -- "poofs" or "poofters". Where did it originate?
Thank you for the question, Matt. This seems to be one of those words everyone has heard, but whose origins cannot be explained.
Sources seem to agree that the root word (poof) first appeared in England in 1850. It was not until early in the 20th century that the derivation (poofter) appeared in England, thought to have come by way of Australia.
Poof could be a variant of the slang word puff, which is thought to have come from the phrase Light as a cream puff -- although I could not discover why that refers to homosexuals. It could be that poofs are considered effeminate -- men who cannot carry their weight (i.e. not masculine), and therefore, light.
References indicate it is a very negative word -- worse, in fact, even than queer and fag.
It is all the more odd, then, that my introduction to that word would have been via the British television program "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in the early 1970s where it was used quite openly in the skit "Bruces."
This concerned the introduction of a new member of the faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Wooloomooloo -- during which the new member was reminded of the rules. "Rule Number One: No poofters." (To emphasize the point, rules three, five, and seven were also "No poofters.")