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The New Oxford American Dictionary defines one sense of drag to be:

Clothing more conventionally worn by the opposite sex, esp. women's clothes worn by a man: a fashion show, complete with men in drag | [as adj.] a live drag show

Now that second bit saying that it is an adjective raises my eyebrows a bit, because that example doesn't look like an adjective to me. I parse that as

a     live  drag show
det.  adj.  noun compound

And I feel this interpretation is vindicated if we contrast sentences like

The show will be so extravagant.

with

*The show will be so drag.

Here I replaced an adjective (extravagant) describing a "show" (the same noun in the sentence provided by the dictionary) with "drag" and got a sentence that seems to me to be ungrammatical. If "drag" were being used as an adjective in the example sentence then it should be separable from the noun it modifies, and it seems to not be. And this evidence is completely congruent with a noun compound understanding of the phrase.

Now to be a little less naïve, I do definitely see how one could think that drag is an adjective in the sentence. It is a word right before a noun that it modifies, which is basically how adjectives work most the time. And I could definitely see it being a pragmatic choice on the part of the dictionary to cater towards a simpler more common understanding. However the issue I see with this is that English allows noun compounding with basically all nouns. And the NOAD does not list every noun this way. So there must be something special about the word it is trying to tell me, but I don't know what it is.

So my questions here are: What's going wrong? Have I misread the dictionary? What is the dictionary trying to tell me.

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    @Lambie I'm not sure what you are getting at. The show will be a drag uses a different sense of the word, and is still a noun. Apr 18, 2021 at 12:55
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    @Lambie Yes, I marked the sentence as ungrammatical, so I definitely agree that it is. And I think beauty is a fine analogy since it is also a noun. Apr 18, 2021 at 13:03
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    Drag in expressions such as: drag queen or drag party is a noun adjunct that works as an adjective, but it is not an adjective like red, good or ugly.
    – user 66974
    Apr 18, 2021 at 15:37
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    noun adjunct: a noun that occurs before and modifies another noun, as toy in toy store or tour in tour group. dictionary.com/browse/noun-adjunct
    – user 66974
    Apr 18, 2021 at 15:42
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    Does this answer your question? Is this noun used as an adjective?
    – user 66974
    Apr 18, 2021 at 15:43

3 Answers 3

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What the dictionary is telling you is that the word "drag" is most commonly used as an noun adjunct: a noun used if it were an adjective.

While "drag" is a noun in its own right, it is most commonly seen as a modifier to other nouns, particularly as "drag act", "drag artist" or "drag show".

The use of "drag" as a noun in its own right is so uncommon in everyday English that most native speakers would be confused if you said something like "this box contains some drag".

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    Doesn't the parenthetical remark in this answer sweep under the carpet what the question is really about? The OP seems to be puzzled precisely by the fact that the dictionary characterises the word in such contexts as an adjective, rather than a noun adjunct.
    – jsw29
    Apr 20, 2021 at 15:17
  • @jsw29 Perhaps. But until I started reading English Language & Usage, I had never even heard of a "noun adjunct" - I always consider them as nouns used as adjectives.
    – Simon B
    Apr 20, 2021 at 16:20
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I think the reason so drag seems weird is that the so X construct normally needs a comparable adjective; dragger (more drag) and draggest (most drag) don't really work. It's either a drag show or it isn't.

As a native English speaker, I find the categorization of phases into either adjective+noun or compound noun to be quite unsatisfactory, as many phrases have aspects of both.

There seems to be a very small list of phrases where "drag" appears before another noun, with the whole phrase denoting "cross-dressing" (in fact off the top of my head I can only think of two in common use: drag show & drag queen), which would point towards these functioning more as idiomatic set phrases rather than a generalizable construct, and that argues against it being analysed as an adjective.

However the real test of an adjective is orthogonality: if you throw novel phrases including "drag" at an average native speaker, will they correctly infer "somehow involving cross dressing" for at least some of them:

  • drag boots
  • drag chains
  • drag clothes
  • drag crossbow
  • drag fair
  • drag hair
  • drag in
  • drag king
  • drag line
  • drag makeup
  • drag marks
  • drag match
  • drag net
  • drag off
  • drag on
  • drag out
  • drag race
  • drag strip
  • drag trap
  • drag venturi
  • drag weed

As always, context and experience are everything. People involved with drag shows are going to have a different set of defaults from people who don't. And a drag trap set in the bush has a very different connotation from a drag trap run by a police vice squad.

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In "a live drag show", both "live" and "drag" modify "show", and both are therefore adjectives.
The show in question is a show exhibiting people dressed in drag, or a "drag show". Same as if you were to say "a fashion show" -- a show exhibiting fashions; or "a car show" -- a show exhibiting cars.

Now you could also say, "a live car show", to distinguish this particular "car show" from a video car show. But "car" still modifies "show", and distinguishes it from a "dog show", "a boat show", "an arts & crafts show", etc. Same with "drag".

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