Slanging match

In 1960 the lexicographer Stuart Flexner declared in his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang that ‘most American slang is created and used by males’.

Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women, work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”

This view reflected more general assumptions about women, men and language. Forty years earlier the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen had suggested that linguistically as in other respects, the two sexes were complementary. Women’s role in the development of language was to exert a civilising influence through their ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Men, by contrast, were responsible for ‘renewing’ language to ensure that it did not become ‘languid and insipid’. Slang, from this perspective, had two defining masculine qualities: much of it was ‘coarse and gross’, but it was also inventive and continuously changing–a product of the linguistic creativity which Jespersen assumed that men possessed and women lacked.

Feminists, of course, have questioned this account. Like the related idea that women don’t swear, ‘women don’t create or use slang’ sounds suspiciously like a combination of wishful thinking and sexist language-policing (‘we don’t think women should swear/use slang, so we’ll insist that it’s not in their nature’). But in that case, why are dictionaries like Flexner’s so dominated by the vocabulary of men? Does that just reflect the historical fact that slang has flourished most conspicuously in the ‘underground’ subcultures of (for instance) thieves, conmen, gangsters, gamblers, soldiers and sailors—all groups in which women were un- or under-represented? Or is it a reflection of male slang-collectors’ limitations, either their inability to access women’s slang or their insistence on defining slang in a way that excluded female speech?

This long-running debate has recently been revisited by the slang lexicographer and historian Jonathon Green, in a book entitled Sounds and Furies: The Love-Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. Having dipped into it last year, I’ve now (thanks to the current lockdown) had time to digest it properly. At over 500 pages it’s not a quick read, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s full of fascinating detail. It is also (IMHO) a welcome corrective to the nonsense that has been talked for decades about women’s (non)contribution to slang.

Women’s supposed avoidance of ‘coarse and gross expressions’ is obviously a myth, contradicted by evidence about both the present and the past. We have many historical records of the abuse uttered by women during arguments with their neighbours that sometimes landed them in court, not to mention the Billingsgate fishwives whose obscene invective gave their occupational title a secondary meaning of ‘foul-mouthed woman’. However, slang encompasses more than just insults and obscenities: it also includes the informal terminology used by specific in-groups, especially those outside or on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society. On this question Green suggests (though cautiously, since most records of the speech of marginalised groups were written down by outsiders, making it difficult to gauge their accuracy), that what’s often been presented as male in-group slang was most likely known and used by both sexes, to the extent that they participated in the same activities and social networks.

Crime is the prototypical example of an in-group slang-generating activity (the precursors of slang dictionaries were glossaries of ‘thieves’ cant’, which began to appear in England in the 16th century), and it is one that has always involved women as well as men. Some women played supporting roles as men’s wives, girlfriends or accomplices, but others (like Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’) engaged in daring exploits that made them (in)famous in their own right, or played influential roles behind the scenes. Early writing about these women represents them using the same cant as their male counterparts, and this is hardly surprising—if your business was robbing or conning people, you’d surely know the vocabulary of the trade. Later on, though, the conviction that women didn’t use slang (or obscenities, or nonstandard dialect) would lead writers to clean up the language of both real and fictional female criminals, creating such implausibly ‘well-spoken’ examples as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist.

One criminalized activity in which women were always over-represented was the sex trade, but some male authorities have gone out of their way to deny that prostitutes have created slang: as one put it, ‘they lack the sophistication to make and acquire an artificial language for themselves’. But the evidence Green reviews suggests, again unsurprisingly, that women who sell sex have developed their own ‘work-specific jargon’—including a list of terms describing their customers as fools, suckers, losers, sexual inadequates, perverts and scumbags. Perhaps they chose not to share this lexicon with the male researchers who sought them out—or perhaps the researchers didn’t ask. A similar point can be made about lesbians, another ‘outlaw’ group who have been said to have no slang of their own. The folklorist Gershon Legman put the dearth of lesbian material in his 1941 glossary of ‘the language of homosexuality’ down to lesbians’ ‘tradition of gentlemanly restraint’, but he doesn’t seem to have had much evidence about the way lesbians talked among themselves.

Slang is not, in any case, the exclusive domain of ‘outlaws’ or people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Green also discusses family and nursery slang (much of it probably female-coined), the slang of ‘respectable’ female occupations like nursing, and a number of historical cases where young women—not infrequently from the higher echelons of society—were the prime movers in the development of an identifiably female or female-centred form of youth slang. In these cases no one suggested that girls and women were incapable of inventing their own language; on the contrary, their linguistic creativity was used as a stick to beat them with. The Burlington Free Press complained in 1879 that

The poorest, feeblest and most vicious slang….is the fashionable slang which pollutes the lips of young girls. ‘Awfully jolly’, ‘Immense’, ‘Aint he a tumbler?’ ‘He has a great deal of the dog on today’.

This writer was talking about the in-group language of the young middle-class women who were referred to, disapprovingly, as ‘fast young ladies’. The term ‘fast’, applied to men, meant a hedonist who devoted his life to pleasure; applied to young women, however, it meant

one who affects mannish habits, or makes herself conspicuous by some unfeminine accomplishment—talks slang, drives about in London, smokes cigarettes, is knowing in dogs, horses, etc.

The slang-using girl was seen as rejecting femininity, and with it her prospects of future happiness. ‘She thinks she is piquante and exciting’, complained one (male) writer in 1868, ‘and will not see that though men laugh with her they do not respect her, though they flirt with her they do not marry her’. He called for the return of the ‘simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesty’.

The panic about ‘fast’ girls did eventually fade away, but complaints about young women’s slang lived on, finding new targets in the girls who featured in (and read) the early 20th century boarding school stories of Angela Brazil (‘Right you are, O Queen, it’s a blossomy idea!’) and in the slightly older figure of the 1920s flapper. Frivolous, flighty and ‘loose’, with her trademark bobbed hair and lipstick, the flapper had an elaborate slang lexicon for discussing her main preoccupations, which included dancing, drinking, money and men. Among the expressions she either coined or popularised are some we still recognise, even if we no longer use them—like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’, ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘for crying out loud’ (a ‘clean’ version of ‘for Christ’s sake’: the avoidance of actual obscenity does seem to have been a feature of middle-class girls’ slang).

Flapperdom was the first in a long line of 20th century youth subcultures with a distinctive style that included slang. In some cases this argot was either male-centred or shared by both sexes, but in others, like the ‘Valley Girl-speak’ that emerged in California in the 1980s (‘gag me with a spoon!’), it was created and primarily used by young women—who were promptly criticised, like fast girls a century earlier, for being vacuous, frivolous, pretentious and superficial.

These recurring complaints underline the point that slang is not and never has been an exclusively male preserve. But each generation of critics has presented young women’s slang as if it were a wholly new phenomenon, a worrying departure from the relatively recent past when girls were allegedly ‘genuine’ and modest. As usual with verbal hygiene, there is more at stake here than language. Disapproving of girls’ slang has often been a coded expression of a deeper unease about social change. Whether she was a middle-class flapper or a working-class ‘munitionette’, the slang-using young woman symbolised female emancipation, and as such she was a threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Complaints about young people’s slang have continued into the 21st century: in the past few years a number of British schools have gone so far as to ban slang expressions like ‘peng’, ‘bare’, ‘bait’, ’emosh’ and ‘fam’. But today the anxiety youth slang provokes seems to have more to do with class (and sometimes race) than gender. Girls are no longer accused of ‘affecting mannish habits’, or warned that they are jeopardising their chances of finding a husband. Rather, both they and boys are told that their slang is holding them back academically and damaging their future employment prospects.

Yet the old sexist prejudices have not completely disappeared. Two years ago, when the Metro newspaper asked if swearing made a woman less attractive to men, not only did many men answer ‘yes’, some added that they were also turned off by women who spoke with strong local accents or used ‘colloquial slang’. Two years earlier, Faima Bakar had complained in a piece for Gal-Dem about young men telling young women not to talk ‘street’. Jespersen’s idealised woman (or rather, ‘lady’), with her ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’, lives on in these judgments—as does the idea of slang, along with nonstandard speech, as rough, tough and therefore male by definition.

This view of slang as ‘rough talk’ doesn’t just exclude women as legitimate users of slang, it also excludes certain kinds of in-group language used by women from the category of slang. As the lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin has pointed out, this makes the argument that women use slang less than men entirely circular. A full picture of women’s slang would require researchers to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and consult a wider range of sources. One source Jonathon Green looks at is Mumsnet, whose users, predominantly middle-class women with children, are pretty much the opposite of ‘outlaws’; yet they’re prolific creators of in-group terminology, and an excellent source for nursery slang (including terms for both sexes’ genitals: the male slang collector who confidently asserted in 1811 that ‘it is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of “twiddle-diddles”’ evidently hadn’t checked with his mother).

It has sometimes been suggested that women avoid what’s generally thought of as ‘real’ slang not because they’re prudes, but because so much of it is sexist and misogynist. But while that might be a consideration for some of us, there’s abundant evidence that woman-hating language has been weaponised by women as well as men. ‘Whore’ and its many synonyms have been the go-to woman-on-woman insults for centuries. Conversely, women’s in-group slang is often rich in disparaging terms for men. The flappers had various words for men who were reluctant to spend money on a date; contemporary female college students have produced a range of unflattering terms describing men you wouldn’t want to date in the first place—for instance, the unattractive ‘craterface’, the overweight ‘doughboy’, and—my particular favourite—the tedious ‘Mr Dry Guy’.

And what, we might ask, about feminist slang? While I was checking the opening quote from Flexner’s preface, I unexpectedly found myself in the manosphere–more specifically, on the MRA hellsite that calls itself A Voice For Men--where Flexner had been approvingly quoted in a 2017 post celebrating slang as ‘the original voice of men’. The writer points out that men’s rights activism has an extensive slang lexicon–‘cuck’, ‘mangina’, ’emotional tampon’ (no, me neither)–whereas feminists, he says, have only ‘prosaic’, quasi-academic terms like ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. ‘Feminism’, he comments,

is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks.

The supposed nonexistence of feminist slang also shows that feminists are the establishment, whereas the men who invented ‘cuck’ and ‘mangina’ are rebellious outlaws. But hold on a minute, dude, if you’re going to boast about ‘mangina’, how about ‘mansplain’, ‘manterrupt’,  ‘manspread’ and ‘mantrum’? And while you’re waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, may I remind you that the feminists of that decade called men like you MCPs, which stood for ‘male chauvinist pigs’?

The truth is, as Green says in his conclusion, that slang is ‘an equal-opportunity employee’. Though men and women may have different slang repertoires, they employ them for the same basic purposes: bonding with in-group members while excluding outsiders, entertaining their friends and insulting their enemies. Those aren’t just things that men do: for better or for worse, they’re things that humans do.

The battle of the big girl’s blouse

During Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Boris Johnson accused the Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being scared to fight an early General Election (the government would like to call one, but they have so far failed to get the votes they need to do it). As Corbyn charged the prime minister with being ‘desperate’, Johnson was heard to shout, ‘Call an election, you great big girl’s blouse!’

‘Big girl’s blouse’ is an expression of contempt for weak and wimpy men. The OED’s first citation for it (i.e., the first written record they could find—I can testify from personal experience that it was used in everyday speech in Britain before 1969) comes from a TV sitcom called Nearest and Dearest, where it was used by the main female character Nellie (a middle-aged working class northerner played by Lancashire actress Hylda Baker) to berate her useless brother Eli, with whom she ran the family pickle factory.

An entry for the phrase on Wordhistories.net suggests that its meaning derives from an analogy between a ‘feeble, cowardly man “in a flap”…and an oversized garment hanging loose’. I don’t find that entirely convincing, though, because it doesn’t explain the gendered nature of the insult. Its target is always male, and the point is to deride him as unmanly. You see this very clearly in one of the examples the entry reproduces, from a 1986 sports report in the Guardian:

The last time Liverpool lost in a home league match against Chelsea was in 1935. The following year scientists isolated the principal female hormone and there are those at Anfield who will tell you that Chelsea have been playing like big girls’ blouses ever since.

The reference to female hormones suggests to me that what the writer wants to conjure up isn’t a mental picture of an outsize garment flapping around. Something is being made here of what’s inside a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when its owner wears it. A ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a man who’s soft when he should be hard: metaphorically he has breasts instead of balls.

As Declan Kavanagh observed on Twitter, this is a classic example of an ‘effeminophobic’ insult, and Boris Johnson’s use of it prompted some debate about whether he was guilty of sexism or homophobia. The answer is surely that any insult whose core meaning is ‘effeminate/emasculated man’ is both homophobic (insofar as popular homophobia conflates being gay with being effeminate) and sexist. Its sexism is slightly less straightforward than the sexism of, say, ‘bitch’, or ‘slut’, because unlike those two epithets it’s used to insult men rather than women. But that should not prevent us from noticing that its force depends on a sexist presupposition. It follows the rule I alluded to in my last post, that one reliable way to insult a man (of any sexuality) is to attribute female or feminine qualities to him.

Why is the attribution of femininity insulting to men? Not only because it implies gender nonconformity (though that’s part of the story), but also because it demotes the target from a dominant to a subordinate position. It exploits, in other words, the tacit understanding that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. That’s why, although it’s possible to insult a woman by attributing masculine qualities to her (especially if you’re talking about how she looks), it’s also possible for that gesture to be a compliment (‘you think like a man’ is a classic example: we’re supposed to be flattered by this ‘promotion’ to the ranks of the superior thinkers). Attributing femininity to a man, by contrast, pretty much always implies a downgrading of his status.

Feminists were in no doubt that ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a sexist expression, and some quickly set about ‘reclaiming’ it, composing tweets which recontextualised the insult as part of a positive message of resistance to sexism. Sophie Walker, the former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted:

Today at Young Women’s Trust we are all wearing our #BigGirl’sBlouse to fight the gendered job roles and sex discrimination that’s holding back the brilliant young women we need in all our workplaces and decision-making spaces

Another feminist photographed a pink shirt on a washing line, explaining that

This is the #BigGirlsBlouse I wore yesterday, when I went to talk to an employer about how they can protect their staff from #sexualharassment. They’re especially keen to tackle the everyday, ‘low-level’ sexism that erodes people’s status at work. The gov’t could learn from them!

There were also tweets like this one, thanking Johnson for inspiring the writer to take action:

Well this Big Girls Blouse has just contacted her local Labour CLP and offered to campaign for the first time ever. I’m 52 and a 40 E cup in case it’s of interest to Boris. And me and my assets will now be doing all we can to bury him. Thanks for the inspiration. #BigGirlsBlouse

Whether sexist insults can be ‘reclaimed’ is one of the questions I’m asked most frequently: to my mind it’s a complicated issue, and the reaction to ‘big girl’s blouse’ is quite a good illustration of its complexity.

The way #BigGirl’sBlouse has been taken up on Twitter exemplifies what might be called ‘opportunistic’ reclaiming–intervening in a specific context to get a specific, and usually limited, effect. It’s the same thing feminists did with ‘[such a] nasty woman’ after Donald Trump used the phrase to describe Hillary Clinton. I call it ‘opportunistic’ (which I don’t mean to imply a negative judgment—being able to seize the moment is an important political skill) because you’re essentially exploiting a political opportunity created by your opponent, using his own insulting words to criticise and/or ridicule him. The goal isn’t really to reclaim ‘nasty woman’ or ‘big girl’s blouse’ by turning them into terms of feminist approbation; on the contrary, in fact, it’s to make these expressions less acceptable in future.

Another well-known example of this type is the use of the term ‘slut walk’ to name a protest against rape culture which was organised in response to a police officer’s comment that if women didn’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Opinions on this one differ: mine is that the original slut walk was a great example of seizing the moment–taking the opportunity to call out an egregious piece of public slut-shaming–but that’s where it should really have stopped. Now that most onlookers can no longer connect the concept of a slut walk to the context in which it originally emerged, the political message has become less clear, and it’s been accused of uncritically celebrating an inherently sexist concept (though in fairness, the founder of the slut walks, Amber Rose, has said herself that she’d like the word ‘slut’ to become obsolete.)

A different type of reclamation involves repurposing a term that was historically an insult as a positive marker of group identity and solidarity, though its use as such is usually restricted to group members and trusted allies. Examples include ‘crip’ (as used by some disability activists) ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’, as well as, some would argue, ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ (which are used by some female speakers as terms of endearment, though that doesn’t mean they’d accept them from non-intimates). ‘Big girl’s blouse’ is not a good candidate for this kind of reclamation, because although it expresses contempt for women, it is not used directly to insult them. It’s not obvious in this case who would want to reclaim it as an identity marker: its targets, allegedly ‘effeminate’ or wimpy men, do not form a coherent political community.

Even where there is such a community, though, the reclamation of insults as positive identity labels tends to generate internal dissent. ‘Queer’ is a case in point: you increasingly see it being used positively, but surveys have found that a lot of LGBT community members, especially gay men, do not find this in-group use acceptable. Some say they will never be willing to call themselves by a word their experience has led them to associate with being verbally abused, threatened and even assaulted. While words continue to be used as slurs, some of the people targeted by them will find proposals to reclaim them insensitive and insulting.

With ‘queer’, the aim of the pro-reclamation camp is not just to make the word positive for in-group members, but also to make it more generally usable as a neutral, descriptive term. The idea is that ‘queer’ should be as widely accepted as ‘gay’ has become in recent decades. Similarly, there have been regular proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ as simply a non-clinical descriptive term for the female genitals (though as I’ve explained elsewhere, I doubt that will ever happen).

One word that women did succeed in reclaiming as a neutral descriptive term is the word ‘woman’ itself. ‘Woman’ was not a strongly pejorative term like ‘cunt’ or ‘queer’, but it was often felt to be ‘impolite’ and therefore avoided or replaced. Historically the politeness issue had been about class distinctions: it was insulting to call female people of a certain social status ‘women’ rather than ‘ladies’. But even after that distinction had been lost, the idea lingered on that ‘lady’ was polite while ‘woman’ was disrespectful. Feminists were critical of what they saw as the squeamish avoidance of ‘woman’, and they made a concerted effort to establish it as simply the unmarked or default way to refer to an adult female. Broadly speaking that effort was successful (though ‘woman’ has since become contentious for other reasons, and the baggage that made people uncomfortable with it in the past remains visible in, for instance, the dictionary and thesaurus entries that recently inspired a petition complaining about their sexism).

In some cases it’s pointless to try to reclaim a word, because social change has made its use as an insult, and sometimes its use for any purpose, a non-issue. An example is ‘old maid’, a derogatory label for a no-longer young woman who, as people used to say, has been ‘left on the shelf’. In a world where unmarried women are no longer social outcasts or freaks, this term has lost its sting, and much of its currency: in the unlikely event that someone did call you an old maid, you’d probably assume they meant it as a joke.

If you’d asked me before this week, I’d have put ‘big girl’s blouse’ in the same category of archaic joke-insults. I hadn’t heard it in years; to hear it being uttered in the House of Commons, especially by someone who’s younger than I am, was more of a surprise than an affront. Though I don’t dispute that it’s a sexist expression, what it connotes, at least to me (perhaps because I first encountered it in the school playground 50 years ago), is an old-fashioned and particularly puerile kind of sexism. In short, I thought Boris Johnson sounded silly and childish calling Jeremy Corbyn a ‘great big girl’s blouse’.

It has since turned out that this is not the only occasion on which Johnson has resorted to the language of the playground. Last month, as he and his advisers planned to sideline Parliament in the crucial run-up to Brexit, he wrote a note in which he referred to fellow-Old Etonian David Cameron as a ‘girly swot’. Critics have been quick to diagnose arrested development, and to blame it on the British upper-class habit of sending impressionable children to single-sex boarding schools. But in fact this isn’t just a British problem: all over the world (in the US, the Philippines, Brazil) we are seeing the rise of middle-aged, misogynist man-children whose political rhetoric leans heavily on crude and puerile insults. When we criticise Boris Johnson’s language we need to see it in that context–as an outward and visible symptom of a deeper political malaise.

The header image shows a detail from one of Ronald Searle’s illustrations for Willans and Searle’s series of  Molesworth books

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. .

Missing words

Last week, the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour ran an item on the American documentary film Do I Sound Gay?  The film explores what’s popularly known as ‘the gay voice’, a way of speaking that identifies a man as gay (though not all gay men have it, and some men who do sound gay are actually straight). The Woman’s Hour feature ranged more widely over the subject of gay language, including a lengthy discussion of Polari. But it was all about the boys–until, towards the end of the item, the presenter broached the inevitable question: do lesbians also have a language of their own?

The short answer is no: there isn’t a lesbian equivalent of the gay voice, or a lesbian argot comparable to Polari. But since this blog does not do short answers, let’s consider the question–and what’s behind it–more closely.

Questions of the form ‘what is the lesbian analogue of X?’, where X is something gay men do, are usually asked with good intentions–most often the idea is to counter the tendency for discussions of gay culture to centre on the male variety, thus erasing or marginalizing the contribution of lesbians. But the way the question is framed introduces another kind of male bias. It treats gay male culture as prototypical, assuming that lesbian culture must be a copy or a mirror image, rather than something that needs to be considered on its own terms.

What this overlooks is that a group’s culture is a product of its history, and gay men and lesbians do not have identical histories. Though there were certainly experiences they shared, their lives were also affected by gender difference and inequality. How that may have influenced their ways of using language is an interesting, though also complicated, question.

The non-existence of a lesbian language was noticed and discussed as long ago as 1941, when Gershon Legman, a folklorist with a particular interest in sexual matters, published ‘The language of homosexuality: an American glossary’. As Legman acknowledged, what was documented in this list of more than 300 slang expressions (which appeared, somewhat incongruously, in a weighty tome summarizing the current state of medical and scientific knowledge about homosexuals) was an almost exclusively male vocabulary. ‘Very noticeable’, he wrote, ‘is the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. He proceeded to speculate on the reasons for this absence:

The tradition of gentlemanly restraint among Lesbians stifles the flamboyance and conversational cynicism in sexual matters that slang coinage requires; and what little direct mention of sexual practice there is among female homosexuals is usually either gruffly brusque and vague, or else romantically euphemistic.

But restrain yourself, gentlemen, there’s more:

Concomitantly, Lesbianism in America—and perhaps elsewhere—seems in a large measure factitious: a faddish vice among the intelligentsia, a good avenue of entry in the theatre, and most of all, a safe resource for timid women and demi-vierges, an erotic outlet for the psychosexually traumatised daughters of tyrannous fathers and a despairing retreat for the wives and ex-wives of clumsy, brutal or ineffectual lovers.

So, most so-called lesbians were only pretending, and the rest were either too restrained or too romantic to be capable of coining slang terms.

It’s tempting to dismiss Legman as just an arrogant sexist jerk. But if we put what he says alongside the work of later historians, it becomes easier to understand what actual characteristics of gay and lesbian cultures in the 1930s and 40s might have led him to pursue this line of argument.

One difference between lesbians and gay men was that lesbians were less likely to be arrested and imprisoned for engaging in illegal sexual acts. The riskiness of sex between men may have been a factor influencing the ‘language of homosexuality’, since it intensified the desire for secrecy and in-group solidarity. Legman remarked that lesbians had less sense of ‘criminality, let alone criminal community…two attitudes of mind which seem particularly conducive to the manufacture of slang’.

In other ways, though, gender inequality made life harder for lesbians. It was harder, economically and socially, for women to live independently of men, and to inhabit public space without male protection. This suggests an alternative explanation of why lesbians did not develop an extensive in-group vocabulary or a widely-used argot like Polari. As the lesbian feminist linguist Julia Penelope once put it,

Lesbians have been socially and historically invisible in our society and isolated from one another as a consequence, and have never had a cohesive community in which a lesbian aesthetic could have developed.

In their history of the working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis point out that in the 1940s and 50s what we would now call the ‘lesbian community’ was not perceived as a unified group whose members shared a single identity. Rather, ‘butch’ and ‘fem’ were regarded as distinct identities: they were associated with different ways of behaving, and in the case of fems, though there were exceptions, with a less permanent commitment to the lesbian life. When Legman talked about ‘factitious’ lesbians it was probably fems he had in mind. .

By contrast, when he talked about ‘gentlemanly restraint’ he was probably thinking more of butches. Kennedy and Davis show that butches, who were more visible as gay women because of their overt gender non-conformity, faced a different set of risks from those that confronted gay men. Butches attracted hostility not only as sexual ‘deviants’, but also as women who claimed certain male prerogatives. Kennedy and Davis think this may be why they did not display the kind of wit and flair that were features of gay men’s linguistic performance. Butches’ survival depended on acting and talking tough, so their style needed to be blunter and more assertive.

But I don’t think we can take it for granted that lesbians never created in-group vocabularies or other distinctive ways of speaking. Whenever the record seems to show that women haven’t done something, the question always has to be asked: is that because women really didn’t do it, or is it just because history did not preserve the evidence?

That question did occur to Legman: he acknowledged that there might have been something for him to find if he’d been able to look in the right places:

I have been assured that the situation is quite different in prisons, and that a fairly extensive Lesbian argot is likely to be found there. I have not had the opportunity to find out.

Later research would bear out this prediction. In 1966, the social scientist Rose Giallombardo published Society of Women , a study of a women’s prison in which she reproduced a number of the letters exchanged by inmates involved in romantic relationships. These suggested that a lesbian argot did, indeed, exist, and offered a glimpse (though only a glimpse, since language wasn’t the author’s main interest) of what it might have looked like.

Women’s prisons are not the only locations where this kind of evidence might have been found. Slang typically flourishes in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘total institutions’ (e.g. prisons, asylums, boarding schools, religious orders, the armed forces), and many institutions of this type have historically been sex-segregated. All-female total institutions (like girls’ boarding schools, women’s colleges and the women’s armed services, as well as prisons and reformatories) would have been good places to look for lesbian slang in the pre-feminist, pre-Stonewall era. But they weren’t readily accessible to male researchers. Legman’s methods had an inbuilt male bias: as well as reading pornography, he spent time hanging out in burlesque theatres and what he described as ‘the grimier shit-houses around Broadway’ (toilet wall graffiti was one source of slang and vulgar terms, and some toilets were also ‘tea rooms’, places where men had sex.)

By the time lesbian researchers came on the scene, the linguistic situation was changing. The advent of the women’s and gay liberation movements at the end of the 1960s produced divisions between those gay men and lesbians who saw sexuality as a political issue, and those who remained resolutely unpoliticized. While the second group continued to use the traditional slang in the traditional way, the first denounced it as reactionary and oppressive. As Julia Penelope argued in 1974:

Too much of the lexicon of gay slang is given over to a preoccupation with sexual objectification and social stratification… Insofar as gay slang reflects and encourages the value system of a racist, patriarchal culture, those gays who use it are engaging in self-oppression. …although gay slang is the vocabulary of those who are themselves outcasts from the straight culture, it also binds us to the same value system that makes us outcasts.

Penelope noted that the gay community’s political awakening had not led to the wholesale abandonment of traditional slang terms, but rather to a shift in their meaning. ‘Certain terms…have ceased to be used with sexual meanings and have, instead, taken on new, political meanings’. The pejorative words ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’, for instance, were reclaimed as positive identity labels. For activists, the term ‘gay’ itself now denoted ‘a state of political awareness in which one no longer needs the narrowly-defined sex stereotypes as bases for identity’.

These new meanings, however, were not accepted by everyone. Many self-styled homosexual men who remained outside the movement (and often firmly inside the closet) thought ‘gay’ was ‘trivializing and inane’. Meanwhile, some lesbians rejected the label ‘gay’ because their primary allegiance was to feminism. In the new nomenclature of sexual identity politics,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Today if you Google ‘lesbian slang’ you get more than half a million hits. I can’t say I looked through all of them, but many of the top ones turned out to be variations on the same two wordlists. Commentators continued to wonder why lesbians lag behind gay men. A piece posted in September 2015 with the title ‘11 lesbian slang words we wish existed’ began:

IDK if you’ve noticed, but the gays have completely monopolized the gay slang world. They have words for everything. Otters?! Pups?! Twinks! Where are our words!!!??!

That question has a long history, but maybe it’s time to move on. If we only ever talk about what lesbians’ language isn’t, we’ll never understand what it is.

An extract from Legman’s glossary is reprinted in The Language and Sexuality Reader, which I co-edited with Don Kulick. This post draws on other research and writing which Don and I  did together, and I thank him for his contribution–though he isn’t responsible for the views I’ve expressed here.