Lesbian slang: a postscript

In my last post I quoted the folklorist Gershon Legman, whose introduction to a 1941 glossary of gay slang drew attention to ‘the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. I also pointed out that his comments on this subject said as much about his own limitations as they did about the language of lesbians.

This prompted some readers to wonder what Legman had missed: apart from the few terms his glossary included (such as ‘bull-dike’, ‘bulldagger’ and ‘daddy’, all labels for a butch or masculine lesbian), what terms were actually in use among lesbians before the advent of women’s and gay liberation? This postscript will address that question–though for the reasons I mentioned in my earlier discussion, what we know is unlikely to be the full story.

I’m fortunate to have had help from someone who knows a lot more than most–the lexicographer Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This is a historical slang dictionary (you can see some of the data from it visually represented on a tumblr whose self-explanatory name is The Timelines of Slang): to compile it, Green sifted through a range of source material including, for instance, pulp fiction and muckraking journalism, as well as the work of earlier lexicographers and academics. I’m grateful to him for giving me access to his data, though he can’t be held responsible for what I’ve made of it.

Before I go on, I should point out that what’s mainly been documented by slang historians is not some generic ‘language of homosexuals’, but the in-group vocabulary of a subculture which only some gay men and lesbians were part of, while others avoided it or had no access to it. As late as the mid-1970s, research investigating gay men’s knowledge of what was supposed to be ‘their’ slang found that many didn’t use or even know the words in question. This research didn’t include lesbians, but it’s likely that many women, too, were unfamiliar with in-group slang because they were isolated from any larger community .

Even if they were not isolated, lesbians did not form a single, internally homogeneous group. Historical evidence from the US shows there were differences in the slang used by Black and white lesbians; there was also a big difference between upper-class bohemians (the targets of Legman’s dismissive remark that a lot of what passed for lesbianism was just ‘a faddish vice among the intelligentsia’), and working-class women whose social lives were conducted in the bars and on the streets, and whose activities in some cases led to repeated stints in prison.What’s mostly presented under the heading of lesbian slang is the usage of the latter group.

Examining that usage underlines a point made in 1969 by the anthropologist David Sonenschein: ‘The language of homosexuality’, he wrote,

is basically the language of social and sexual relationships rather than of the sexual act itself. The deviancy of homosexual sexual orientation has been so salient…that previous research has ignored two main and very real factors of homosexual life: (1) its social complexity and (2) its relatively unexotic (even unerotic) nature as a total lifestyle.

Sonenschein went on to point out that in glossaries like Legman’s, what he called ‘role terms’ were approximately twice as numerous as ‘sex terms’. Virtually all the lesbian-specific terms Legman included fall into the ‘role term’ category, and the same pattern is evident in later sources, with the largest number of terms relating to the central role distinction between butch and fem.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, some of the most interesting sources are accounts of life in women’s prisons, which reproduced inmates’ stories in their own words. Two notable examples, both from the 1960s, were Rose Giallombardo’s academic study Society of Women, and the journalist Sara Harris’s book Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women. Not all the slang recorded in these texts was specifically lesbian slang, as opposed to general prison slang, but ‘the racket’ (as inmates called the lesbian subculture) was clearly a salient aspect of prison life.

Prison slang made a distinction between women who were lesbians on the outside, and women who turned to lesbianism only while incarcerated. The latter were known as ‘j.t.s’ (short for ‘jailhouse turnouts’), ‘dogs’ or ‘guttersnipers’–derogatory terms indicating the low regard in which they were often held. In some cases they appear to have been subjected to a degree of coercion: there was a word, ‘flagging’, for older inmates’ attempts to involve younger ones in sexual activities. The evidence suggests that this practice existed in both prisons and reform schools, and that young women sometimes submitted because, as one told Harris, ‘you got to belong or get hurt’.

As on the outside, relationships on the inside were typically organized around the butch/fem role division. The butch (known as, among other terms, a ‘stud broad’, ‘king’ or ‘pop’) was the dominant partner both socially (Giallombardo noted that the fem was expected to ‘give him respect’) and sexually. Taking the active role in sex was known as ‘giving up the work to someone’, an expression whose use is illustrated by this quote from Hellhole:

And that, says Lucky, was the last time she ever played femme and let anybody give up the work to her. From that day on, she knew herself to be a dyke and she was the one who gave the work up to other girls.

Lesbian slang overlapped not only with prison slang, but also with the vocabulary of other groups whose members were engaged in illicit sexual activities. An example is the verb ‘mac(k)’: applied to lesbians, it meant ‘to act in a masculine manner’ (to ‘mack it’ was to wear men’s clothing). Applied to men, however, the same verb could mean ‘to work as a pimp’. Because they were all viewed as sexual deviants and/or criminals, lesbians, gay men and people working in the commercial sex trade inhabited a shared underground social world; their networks intersected, and that was reflected in their vocabularies.

Some gay men and lesbians were directly involved in the sex trade, most commonly through working as prostitutes. For some this was a regular occupation, while for others it was more occasional: Sara Harris reports that ‘when they needed to, femmes and butches […] picked up tricks and put on circuses [i.e., performances of lesbian sex] for them’. There were also women who would pay to have sex with a woman. The term ‘jane’ (a female analogue of ‘john’) is recorded, referring to ‘the female client of a streetwalker’, as is the use of the word ‘freak’ to describe a woman who catered to lesbians.

Jonathon Green observes that what slang dictionaries offer is ‘an oral history of marginality and rebellion, of dispossession and frustration’. They make visible a world which standard, ‘general purpose’ dictionaries either pass over in silence or handle with metaphorical tongs (as I noted in a previous post, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary declined to include the word lesbian itself until 1976). But this does not reveal everything about a marginalized community’s life: it’s in the nature of slang to be more concerned with some areas of experience than others. You may have noticed, for instance, that the themes of the vocabulary I’ve been discussing include sex, commerce and power, but not love, affection and other tender feelings,  though those must also have existed and been expressed between women.

It’s also difficult to see this vocabulary as either a language of conscious political resistance to oppression or a proto-feminist language of sisterhood. Though lesbians as a group occupied a precarious position in male dominated society, the subculture had its own power hierarchies: women could be exploited not only by men, but also by other women–like the older women who put pressure on younger ones in prisons, or the richer women who paid poorer ones for sex. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that women have no special claim to superior moral virtue, and that oppression does not generally make people behave like saints.

As a linguist who’s interested in the history of English, I’m happy to have a record of terms like ‘hawk’ (a lesbian who makes pick-ups on the street), ‘jasper’ (African American prison slang for a lesbian), ‘mantee’ (a masculine lesbian), ‘ruffle’ (a fem) and ‘sil’ (short for ‘silly’, meaning a lesbian who’s infatuated with another woman). But I wouldn’t want to live in the world they belonged to. Creative and colourful though the words may have been, I’m glad that social change has made them history. .