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Home arrow OED editions, updates and revisions arrow Case study: terms for lesbian(ism)
Case study: terms for lesbian(ism)
Terms for lesbian: how different stages of editing OED are reflected in links to HTOED
Words for female homosexual were under-recorded in the original OED. The sexual sense of lesbian (both adjective and noun) was left out of OED1, and - most unusually - we have clear evidence of the deliberate decision to continue to exclude it from the Dictionary during the editing of the first Supplement in 1933 (see Brewer 2007b: 49-50). This is striking, given that the 1933 Supplement did include, for the first time, the term homosexual (adj.), defined as 'Pertaining to or characterized by sexual propensity for one's own sex'. Along with lesbianism, lesbian (noun and adjective) was finally added to OED in R. W. Burchfield's second Supplement in 1976 (vol 2), with quotations dating from 1890 (1870 for lesbianism); in fact it was used in print as early as 1732. The second Supplement (4 vols published 1972-86) also added a number of related terms:

  •     bull-dike (quotations from 1926)
  •     butch (first clear example is dated 1965; the entry bunches several senses together)
  •     dike (quotations from 1942) and dikey (from 1964)
  •     femme (quotation of 1966)
  •     Les (quotations from 1942)
  •     lesbo (quotations from 1940
  •     Lizzie (quotations from 1942)

All these have been included in the HTOED, since as we have seen (on previous page) HTOED was based on OED2, itself an amalgamation of the first edition of OED with Burchfield's second Supplement. OED3 has since added several more terms relating to lesbian, e.g.

carpet muncher (1992), girl-on-girl (1995), lady-love (2003), lipstick lesbian(ism) (1984), mantee (1937), Marge (1957), Margery (1936), mom (1957), muff-diver (1930), rubster (1657), rug muncher (1981)

As indicated by the date of first usage (in brackets), some of these words have come into usage since the second Supplement was published (and therefore couldn't possibly have been included either in this dictionary or in previous versions of OED), while others were available to be recorded but failed to make an entry - perhaps because consciously or unconsciously censored by the editors; perhaps because the evidence was for some reason not available.

So what happens if one clicks on the thesaurus link for lesbian, noun, when consulting OED Online today, in search of what the HTOED editors (in their introduction to the printed work) call a 'cultural map' of the phenomenon? The result (as of December 2011) is a list of synonyms organized by date of first usage which reads as follows:

  •     tribade (1601)
  •     Sapphist (1923)
  •     Lesbian (1925)
  •     bull-dike (1926)
  •     Les (1929)
  •     muff-diver (1930)
  •     Margery (1936)
  •     mantee (1937)
  •     lesbo (1940)
  •     butch (1941)
  •     dike (1942)

The results for lesbian, adjective, are

  •     Lesbian   (1890)
  •     lesbic (1892)
  •     dikey   (1964)
  •     girl-on-girl   (1984)

and for lesbianism

  •     tribadism   (1811-19)
  •     Lesbianism   (1870)
  •     tribady   (1882)
  •     Sapphism   (1890)
  •     lipstick lesbianism   (1993)
  •     girl-on-girl   (1995)
  •     lady-love   (2003)

This would appear to tell one that terms for lesbian(ism) began to be used in the 19th century, proliferated in the 20th century, and scarcely existed before then - certainly not over the 17th and 18th centuries. The inference looks obvious: that lesbianism as a phenomenon was not articulated in the language until very recently, and that this fact may well bear some identifiable relation to the social history of the phenomenon itself. (Of course, the absence of evidence for the term does not indicate that women did not engage in sexual activity with each other, rather it may point to the taboo status of such activity - and as historians of sexuality routinely remind us, we should be cautious of assuming that today's notions of sexuality can be straightforwardly mapped onto those of a previous age).

HTOED 'cultural maps' can be misleading
But this inference would be wrong - not altogether wrong, but wrong enough to mislead quite seriously. A number of terms describing or pertaining to lesbianism were in use from the Early Modern English period onwards, as abundantly documented in the works listed at the foot of this page. Some of these would almost certainly have been known to the first-edition lexicographers. However, as the 1933 Supplement's deliberate exclusion of the sexual sense of lesbian itself would suggest, OED1 (in common with other dictionaries of the time) was notably reluctant to name and specify this phenomenon. The terms with clear (or fairly clear) reference to sex between women that the first edition did include were couched in condemnatory language: Sapphism was defined as 'unnatural sexual relations between women, and tribade as 'a woman who practises unnatural vice with other women'. Since HTOED is derived from OED, it follows that the 'cultural map' it offers of this sexual phenonemenon simply reproduces the omissions of its source.

Earlier terms for lesbian(ism)
Pre-19c terms denoting lesbians or lesbianism include the word lesbian itself, used with clear sexual meaning in William King's The Toast of 1732 (e.g. p. 16; cf. Donoghue 1993: 258-61). Other examples, all discussed or referred to by the books listed at the foot of this page, are

1. flats
Not in OED. Green's Dictionary of Slang defines as 'lesbian sexual intercourse' and supplies with ten quotations dated between 1655 and 1749. The first, from Mercurius Fumigosus 38 14-28 Feb. 303, reads 'They walk out hand in hand like two disconsolate Virgins to seek Mandrakes to help them make perfect what their lost Sweethearts have left behinde, their concupiscence being so predominant in the House of Venus, that being at a game of Flatts upon a bed, a young man hearing the bed tell tales, steping softly to the door, discovered the Jogg, and so returned, myuch pittying the extremities poor female mortalls are driven to by the unkindness of men'.[1]

2. fricatrice
This word was included in OED1 but defined simply as 'a lewd woman', a euphemistic definition which presumably equates to 'prostitute'. 'Prostitute' is a defensible definition for the last cited example of use, from Robinson Ellis's translation of Catullus (as one can see by checking the original Latin) but not, probably, for the first one at least, which appears to refer to refer specifically to (a prostitute who is) lesbian (see discussion in Wahl 1999: 51). This interpretation is strengthened by the etymology of the word, from Latin fricare, to rub (cf. rubster below)

The OED1 quotations are as follows:

  •     1607 B. Jonson, Volpone iv.ii.55: 'The Patron, or Saint George To a lewd harlot, a base fricatrice'
  •     1708 P.A. Motteux, Wks F. Rabelais v.v.165: 'Ingles, Fricatrices and He-Whores'
  •     1871 R. Ellis, tr. Catullus Poems xciv.10: 'Like slaver abhorr'd breath'd from a foul fricatrice'

The entire entry is reproduced without change (including the definition) in the current version of OED Online.

3. rubster
This term, defined as 'a woman who engages in sexual activity involving genital contact with other women', has recently (March 2011) been included in OED3, with two quotations dated 1657 and 1663 and one of 2004 (from Borris 2003). For some reason this word does not turn up in the HTOED list of terms for lesbian (noun), as consulted December 2011.

4. tommy
Not in OED. Recorded in Green's Dictionary of Slang where it is defined as 'a lesbian' and supplied with three quotations dated 1773, 1781, and 1813. The first of these is taken from an anonymous text quoted in Donoghue 1993: 5, and in full the quotation reads

Woman with Woman act the Manly Part
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:
And if they don't relinquish such a Crime,
I'll give their Names to be the scoff of Time
(Anon, The Adulteress, S. Bladon, 1773, pp. 25-6)
Donoghue notes (from the 1984 edition of Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, s.v. Tom) a number of uses of the related word 'tom' to mean 'a masculine woman of the town', or 'a woman who does not care for the society of others than those of her own sex', commenting '"Tom(my)' is just one example of how an unbroken slang tradition can go unrecorded by the OED' (p. 5). Green's Dictionary of Slang (2010), with its uniquely full collection of quotations from a vast array of different texts (far superior to any other historical dictionary of slang), is therefore an unparallelled source of further evidence on terms for 'lesbian' as for all other types of slang.

The derogatory and offensive use of many of these terms opens up another area of study: were some less so than others, and what might that tell us about varying attitudes towards lesbianism, whether at different periods or by different groups of users? 

But the lesson is clear: use HTOED evidence available on OED Online with extreme caution. As already pointed out, OED needs to make this caveat very clear to its users but does not currently do so.

Further reading
  • Andreadis, A. Harriette. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics, 1550-1714. London: University of Chicago Press, 2001
  • Borris, Kenneth. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Texts. New York; London: Routledge, 2003
  • Donoghue, Emma. Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. London: Scarlet Press, 1993
  • Robinson, David M. Closeted Writing and Lesbian and Gay Literature: Classical, Early Modern, Eighteenth-Century. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publ., 2006
  • Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
  • Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999

[1] Mercurius Fumigosus was a news book produced by John Crouch, a Royalist journalist, in 1654-5. See Lancaster University project at http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/projects/newsbooks/fumig.htm (accessed 22 December 2011).
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