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. .

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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.