Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Words That Mean Lesbian and Other Cultural Contexts


Whether you're just interested in reading up on queer linguistics, curious as to what you can call yourself, wondering how many cultures actually recognise lesbians, or wanting to know the code words that authors used to use when they didn't want their mainstream readers to know who the lovely heroine is really dreaming of, you'll find this quick and dirty* guide to the various terms for lesbian enlightening.

There aren't nearly as many words for lesbian as there are for gay men - mostly because women and their relationships have been ignored, disbelieved in and disregarded for most of Western society. While it existed in early Greek and Roman literature (the latter rather less favourably), it then more or less vanished, appearing mainly in French literature by the 19th century (though not always positively). Lesbianism wasn't really recognised as a type of 'real' relationship, and publically labelled, until the twentieth century.

In many cultures, women's romantic relationships with each other are not officially recognised, but apparently tolerated as long as they marry and bear children. In others, there is a place for cross-gender roles, women who take the place of men and effectively 'become' male, as far as their society is concerned. These don't always reflect personal desire, but may be a result of local gender imbalance (e.g. if most of the men have been killed fighting, leaving widows behind). Pacific cultures may designate that certain children become effectively transgendered if there are too many sons or daughters.


Words That Mean Lesbian in Western Culture
From generic to obscure


  • Queer - a generally inclusive term for everyone whose sexuality is in anyway fluid or non-conformative.

  • Homosexual - 'same sexual', a unisex term for those who are attracted to their own gender.

  • Sapphic, sapphism - a reference to the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, who is believed to have been a lesbian, or at least dedicated numerous poems to women. 

  • Lesbian - from the island of Lesbos, where Sappho lived. Now the most common term for women who romantically, emotionally and sexually love other women. It has been used since the 17th century.


  • Tribad - another term for lesbian, referring to the sex act of scissoring. Not really in use any more, it existed in the 17th-18th century.
  • Gynephilia - sexual attraction to females (a more scientific term that ignores who is actually being attracted)

  • Bisexual - considered the norm in many cultures (e.g. Hawaii, see The Imperialist: A Novel of the Hawaiian Revolution by Kurt Hanson), it's pretty recent in Western culture. The theory of the Kinsey Scale (that everyone falls along the continuum of Straight to Gay, with most people having some degree of bisexuality) is spreading.

  • Inversion Theory - an early 19th century theory that is basically a very simplified version of transgenderism and homosexuality, before there was any real awareness that gender and sexuality might be separate. Essentially, some people are 'inverted' in that they may be born female but display masculine traits and are sexually interested in woman (and vice versa for men).  The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is basically about an 'invert' woman called Stephen. It's important to remember that the role of women was quite restrictive around this time, so it also doesn't allow for desires for alternate social roles and personal freedoms.




Euphemisms
Euphemisms are slowly disappearing as it becomes more acceptable to just say lesbian. These are not the same thing as slurs, or slang (e.g. dyke), which are usually pretty obvious in their meaning and often meant as insults (or at least, used to be).

  • wearing comfortable shoes
  • daughter of Lesbos
  • confirmed bachelorette
  • On the ‘other’ bus
  • Tomboy (can mean lesbian, or strongly imply it, depending on culture and context)

Indicator words in 1950s pulp lesbian fiction (the stuff usually written by men, not the 'for real lesbians' stuff), and earlier.
  • strange
  • twilight
  • queer
  • third sex
  • invert (used by Radclyffe in The Well of Loneliness)
  • sapphic (used to be a 'code' word which then led to the associated use of lesbian)


Specific types of lesbian
The following terms can vary a great deal in meaning, depending on where and when and what and who. Like most slang it can change frequently and mean different things to different people.


Dyke is usually just a slang word for lesbian these days. It was originally meant as an insult, aimed at more 'masculine' lesbians. 
  • There's an entire slew of variant terms, e.g. bulldyke, baby dyke, femme dyke, transdyke, bear dyke.
  •  Three-wheel trike is the London Cockney rhyming slang version


Butch and Femme are generally used to describe masculine/feminine (i.e. the touch guy and the feminine girl) roles in lesbian relationships. Some women fall into these categories, others don't.

  • Lipstick lesbian, doily dyke - basically a very 'girly' lesbian who dresses up in dresses and makeup.
  • Soft butch - an androgynous, or less mannish butch lesbian.
  • Stone butch - an overly 'masculine' or tough lesbian, usually tops, often don't like to be considered female.
  • Stone femme - usually bottoms, and/or seems to prefer illusion partner is male. Or just a really femme femme.
'Boston Marriage' is a late nineteenth century term that originated in the US, and is used to refer to women in a committed partnership which is generally asexual.

Terms for lesbians in other cultures


Babylon
 'salzikrum' ("daughter-men") in the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 BC) - women allowed to marry other women, although this may be a transgender term rather than a lesbian one.


Greece
While Greek sexuality is a fairly confusing issue (including whether they recognised it at all, as same-sex relationships generally revolved around status and societal roles), lesbianism appears to have been practiced and considered fairly neutrally. Most famously, Sappho of Lesbos dedicated a number of her (apparently romantic) poems to women. Hence the terms sapphic and lesbian.


Rome
Most Roman literature demonises lesbianism, with the exception of Book IX of Ovid's the Metamorphoses - the love story of  Iphis and Ianthe, about an androgynous girl raised as a boy, who loves another girl, and ultimately turned into a boy.


Native America
Two-Spirit (modern) from iizh manidoowag (two spirits) - Native American term for men and women born with 'two spirits', for people who don't fit traditional gender roles. Lesbian Two-Spirits generally married other women, especially those widowed with children.



Africa
yaikya bons├íngo Nkundo people, Congo "a woman who presses against another woman"
kifi - Hausa people, Sudan "neither party insists on a particular sexual role" (for gay males and females)

Lesbian relationships are common in the daily life and mythology of the matrilineal Akan people, Ghana. In Lesotho women engage in sexual behaviour frequently, but do not consider it 'sex', simply normal female interaction.

China
Effectively invisible in ancient China, women were basically considered asexual - as long as a woman married and pursued children, her relationship with other women didn't matter. In more recent history, westernisation introduced the concept of lesbians more openly.
  • dui shi "paired eating" - a description from the ancient historian Ying Shao that apparently refers to lesbian couples.
  • "Golden Orchid Associations" from Southern China arranged formal marriages between women and subsequent adoptions. These lasted until the 20th century.
  • 19th century female communes - tzu-shu nii (never to marry), called sou-hei (self-combers) by others for giving themselves married hairstyles. 
  • Today, both male and female homosexuals are referred to as tongzhi (same goal or spirit)

Japan
rezubian - a 1920s term, an 'Engrish' version of 'lesbian'
pondan - Malaysia, historically for gay men, now used for lesbians with recent recognition

Academic Nonfiction & Literature Studies
If you're interested in female sexuality, lesbians in literature over time and lesbian history, you may be interested in these books.

You may also be interested in:



*not that kind of dirty! Ha! Check out the erotica posts for that!

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