Lesbian Terminology: History and Timeline

You've read your Lesbian glossary and are sussed on Lesbian terms but... did you know at one time Lesbians were called.. inverts, tribades, and uranians! What does "Are you a friend of Dorothy?" mean?
Check out this lesbian terminology timeline of some lesbian and queer terms throughout history.

c. 630 - Saphho

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Saphho

Lesbian Term: Saphho: once upon a time, on the island of Lesbos lived a beautiful Greek poet called Sappho who became a symbol of love and desire between women with the English words sapphic and lesbian being derived from her name and the name of her home island of Lesbos.

1601 - Tribade

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Tribade

Lesbian Term: Tribade: Oxford Dictionary Definition of Tribade = a lesbian. The etymology of Tribade via Latin tribas a lesbian, from Greek tribein to rub. The delightlful term Tribbing = ... scissoring!

The term Tribade is recorded as early as 1601, in Ben Jonson's Praeludium (Poem X in The Forest):

Or, with thy tribade trine, invent new sports

1660 - Travesti

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Travesti

Transvestite Term: Travesti: Travesti is a theatrical term referring to the portrayal of a character in an opera, play, or ballet by a performer of the opposite sex.

Since the presence of real women on stage was considered immoral until the late 17th century in England and the late 18th century in the Papal States, on stage, women were portrayed by male actors in drag. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 women started appearing on the English stage, both in female and male roles. Amongst the 19th century actresses who made a mark in travesti roles were Mary Anne Keeley, Maude Adams and Sarah Bernhardt.

1732 - Lesbian

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Lesbian

Lesbian Term: Lesbian: Collins Dictionary definition of Lesbian = used to describe gay women. The etymology of Lesbian is via Latin from Greek Lesbios, from Lesbos, home of Sappho, who expressed affection for women in her poetry.

Seriously, can the following be true? Apparently, during the four decades it took to create the 12-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED), completed in 1928, the word Lesbian appeared only in reference to the island of Lesbos. Only with OED's 1976's Supplement did the word Lesbian appear as an 1890 synonym for Tribadism.

Although the term lesbian was used in a 1890... medical dictionary, as an adjective to describe tribadism (as "lesbian love") there are earlier mentions of the term Lesbian in for example... 1732 - William King's poem "The Toast":

A nobler Verse – The British Myra sings;
The mighty Thing, which Lesbian Loves began,

1866 - Algernon Charles Swinburne's poem "Sapphics":

Saw the Lesbians kissing across their smitten,
Lutes with lips more sweet than the sound of lute-strings,

1840s - Sapphist

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Sapphist

Lesbian Term: Sapphist: Collins Dictionary definition of Sapphist = a lesbian. Adjective sapphic = relating to lesbians and/or lesbianism. The etymology of Sapphist is via Greek poet Sappho whose poetry often reveals her tender affection for other women.

So far I have only found that the term sapphist was used during much of the Victorian era.

1864 - Uranian

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Uranian

Queer Term: Uranian: Uranian is a term that referred to homosexual men. The term Uranian was first published by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in a series of five booklets (1864–65) collected under the title Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Research into the Riddle of Man–Male Love). Ulrichs was a German Lawyer and gay, who is regarded today as a pioneer of gay rights.

Ulrichs derived the term Uranian from the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, who was created out of the god Uranus'... testicles! Uranian represented the homosexual gender. The term Dionian represented the heterosexual gender and was derived from Aphrodite Dionea. Apparently, Ulrichs developed his terminology before the first public use of the term homosexual, which appeared in 1869 in a pamphlet published anonymously by Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

Opera Singer Felicita Vestvali was described as being Uranian by Rosa von Braunschweig, a longtime friend, in the Yearbook of Intermediate Sexual Types (1903).

1868 - Homosexual

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Homosexual

Queer Term: Homosexual: Cambridge Dictionary Definition of Homosexual = a person who is sexually attracted to people of the same sex and not to people of the opposite sex. The etymology of Homosexual via Greek homos, "same" + sexual.

The first known appearance of the word homosexual in print is found in an 1869 German pamphlet by the Austrian-born novelist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, published anonymously, arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law. However, a year earlier, on May 6, 1868, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote to Kertbeny, using four new terms he had coined: "Monosexual; Homosexual; Heterosexual; und Heterogenit"

1870 - Invert

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Invert

Queer Term: Invert: Sexual inversion was a term used by late 19th and early 20th century sexologists, to express the inborn reversal of gender traits i.e. taking on the gender role of the opposite sex.

In 1870, in the Archiv für Psychiatrie, Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal, an eminent professor of psychiatry at Berlin Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin (one of Europe's largest university hospitals) published a detailed account of a young woman who, from her earliest years, was sexually inverted: she liked to dress as a boy, only cared for boys’ games, and as she grew up was sexually attracted only to women, with whom she formed a series of tender relationships.

Surprisingly the term invert was not confined to medical books. A friend of the sexologist, Havelock Ellis who had published Sexual Inversion (1897) which is thought to be the first English medical textbook on the subject of homosexuality, and a believer in his theory of sexual inversion, Radclyffe Hall gave this theory, fictional expression through her infamous novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Moreover, Havelock Ellis provided a foreword to the novel in which he consistently used the term invert to refer to its "he-was-a-she" protagonist, Stephen Gordon, who bore a strong resemblance to one of Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing's case studies. Thank goodness the term invert is no longer used!

1886 - Boston Marriage

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Boston Marriage

Lesbian Term: Boston Marriage: Merriam Webster definition of Boston marriage = a long-term loving relationship between two women. First known use of Boston marriage = 1893, in the meaning defined above (but no citation given).

Although Henry James never used the term Boston marriage within his book it is most likely the term Boston marriage is derived from his popular novel The Bostonians (1886), which centres around a long-term relationship between two unmarried women living together in Boston. The Bostonians was inspired by Henry James' sister Alice (an American diarist) who lived in such a relationship with American educator Katherine Loring.

1920s - Lavender Marriage

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Lavender Marriage

Queer Term: Lavender Marriage: Lavender Marriage = a term coined to describe a marriage between a man and a woman in which one, or both are gay and is undertaken as a marriage of convenience to conceal the sexual orientation of one or both partners.

During the 1920s the term lavender marriage came into colloquial use with the imposition of morality clauses into the contracts of Hollywood actors. First introduced by Universal Film Company, the morality clauses, permitted the company to discontinue actors' salaries "if they forfeit the respect of the public". The kind of behaviour deemed unacceptable ranged widely from criminal activity to association with any conduct that was considered indecent or startling to the community. Notably MGM actor William Haines' career was destroyed when he refused to end his relationship with his male partner Jimmy Shields, and enter into a marriage at MGM's discretion. Thus some gay notable Hollywood stars entered into marriages of convenience to protect their public reputations, and preserve their careers.

Why the colour lavender? Sappho's poems indciated she fancied younger women with "violet tiaras" and in the 1920s some lesbians gifted violet flowers as an expression of sapphic interest.

1930s - Friend of Dorothy

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Friend of Dorothy

Queer Term: Friend of Dorothy: in gay code, a friend of Dorothy is a euphemism for a gay man which dates back to at least World War II, when homosexual acts were criminalised. Now the term is used by anybody in the LGBTQ+ community. I L.O.V.E this old-skole term.

The exact origin of the term friend of Dorothy is unknown and there are various theories:

  • Dorothy Parker - in the roaring 1920s and '30s slick, witty writer NYC and socialite Dorothy Parker had many gay friends. When she would throw "famous parties at Garden of Allah's lavish celebrity villas", gay men would use the phrase for entry. Many began using the code for social gay networking as they lived in fear of discovery and persecution.
  • Dorothy from L. Frank Baum's novel The Road to Oz (1909) - the novel is a sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). When Polychrome meets Dorothy's travelling companions, he exclaims, "You have some queer friends, Dorothy", and she replies, "The queerness doesn't matter, so long as they're friends."
  • Dorothy from the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) - both the movie, the song "Over The Rainbow" and Judy Garland who starred as Dorothy are gay icons. Note - The stonewall riots coincidentally happened in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 - Judy Garland's funeral was June 27, 1969.

1930s - The Sewing Circle

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: The Sewing Circle

Lesbian Term: The Sewing Circle: The Sewing Circle - a discreet code for a network of Hollywood lesbian and bisexual actresses who hung out together.

There is contention as to who came up with the name The Sewing Circle. Alla Nazimova (a Russian-American) actress is credited as coming up with term The Sewing Circle. Thereafter, Marlene Dietrich secretly called her group of Hollywood lesbian and bi women stars, her Sewing Circle. As documented by Axel Madsen in his book The Sewing Circle (1996), this included a surprising array of key Hollywood stars: Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford... They stars met at one another's Hollywood houses for lunch, conversation and... aye! Mercedes de Acosta (a playwright...) seems to have struck it very lucky there.

1930s onwards & upwards? - Lesbian +...

Lesbian / LGBT Terms

Lesbian Terms: Lizzie, lezzie, leso, les, lezzer, lezza, bean flicker, carpet muncher, pussy puncher, muff diver, todger dodger, switch hitter, gillette blade, scissor sister, kiki, dyke (I find so amusing as I am an ex geologist), butch, bull-dyke...

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me - really?

1969 - Gay (appropriated by gays)

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: Gay

Queer Term: Gay: The word Gay was originally used to mean "carefree", "cheerful", or "bright and showy" but now primarily refers to a homosexual person or the trait of being homosexual.

During the 12th century the word gay arrived in English via Old French "gai" to mean "carefree", "cheerful". However by the late 17th century, it had evolved to also mean "uninhibited by moral constraints" thus a gay woman was a prostitute, a gay man a womanizer, a gay boy served male clients and a gay house a brothel.

Apparently Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the first movie to use the word gay in reference to homosexuality when Cary Grant wearing a woman's feather-trimmed robe, as his clothes have been sent to the cleaners, replies "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!". In early July 1969, due in large part to the Stonewall riots in June of that year, the Gay Liberation Front was born and the word gay to mean homosexual was appropriated by gays themselves.

1978 - BTW 1 > The Rainbow Flag

c 1988 - LGBT

Lesbian / LGBT Terms: LGBT acronyms

In the United States, from about 1988, gay activists began to use the acronym LGBT i.e Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.

The acronym has now evolved into... LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA...!

What does LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA stand for? It stands for = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Questioning, Curious, Asexual, Pansexual, Gender Nonconforming, Gender-Fluid, Non-Binary, Androgynous. Forgive me, now I got Super‐cali‐fragil‐istic‐expi‐ali‐docious ringing in my head!


2020s - Blah, Blah, Blah To The Past?

Lesbian / LGBT Terms

"The fire is the future and the past, is the flame". Up for a bonnie wee respect-to-the-past LGBT / Lesbian quiz challenge? How many will you, score :)

Lesbian Glossary of Terms

Why include a glossary of common terms used within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) communities? ...

Groovers, everyone is classified via... colour, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age, weight, music, fashion... Thanks to amazing lesbian trailblazers in history and other slick sapphic pioneers mentioned throughout this site, youngsters are finding it (hopefully) a tad easier to come out. Yet, we are still sometimes shouted at in the streets or talked behind our backs, with some... derogatory ... terms. During the research for this site, I came across some historical lesbian terminology I had never heard of, so I thought it would be interesting to include this historical Lesbian glossary of terms. In this modern age of enlightment? I wonder which you would call yourself? Finally, I have found the guts to choose mine = gay :)

Ps Also check out a dippy lesbian quiz to test your lesbian & LGBT historical trivia