Erotic slang words from Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and other English-speaking nations number well into the tens of thousands. But the history of terms used to describe the sexual activities of gays and lesbians have opposing sources: one, the discreet networks of gay men and lesbians who sought to come up with a new terminology for the pleasures of their secret lives; and the other, those who found gay sexuality repellent, and created phrases that denigrated and insulted its proponents. The result? A coded language, for better or worse, that celebrates sexuality in all its queerness.
Reviewed by Jean Roberta
This unusual reference book was published in 2003, but it is still (to this reviewer’s knowledge) the only one of its kind. It is a brave attempt to catalogue all the words used in English for “queer” (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) subjects, post-2000 and in the past.
In his introduction, the author explains some of the challenges of compiling this book:
“queer language is in a state of near constant flux much in keeping with the ever increasing visibility of gays and lesbians in contemporary culture.”
Peterkin goes on to explain that the need for secret “passwords” in more homophobic times gave rise to such elaborate identifying markers as:
“the secret male language called Polari (more or less from ‘parlare,’ to speak in Italian) used by gay men in London from the 1930s to 1970s. The language of Polari contained some 500 words about sex, the body, physical appearance, meeting places, straights and gays. . . some Polari terms, like ‘bod,’ ‘trade,’ ‘troll,’ basket,’ and ‘cottage’ are still used today, and many have been absorbed into mainstream vocabulary as well.”
According to Peterkin, the increased acceptance and visibility of queer culture since the birth of the “Gay Rights” movement in 1969 has not decreased the need for specialized vocabularies, especially as new sexual identities and sub-communities have emerged. The author claims: “As an example, in the 1990s we saw the emergence of bear culture and terminology to describe hirsute, physically large gay men and their admirers.”
The alphabetical entries begin with “abdomen,” “androgyne,” “anus,” “aphrodisiac” and “aroused.” The synonyms for “androgyne” include “morphodite,” a mysteriously insulting word that this reviewer remembers being used by other teenagers in rural Idaho in the 1960s, regardless of whether they knew what it meant. (The word was applied to male “sissies” and female “tomboys” in a rigidly gendered culture.) Peterkin confirms my suspicion that it is a corruption of “hermaphrodite,” originally the name of the child of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology.
Queer words meaning “aroused” include “having a pash for” (which was used as early as World War I, although usually in a heterosexual context) as well as “hot as a firecracker,” which the author describes as a Canadian term first used in the 1920s.
Strangely enough, “Canadian” is listed as a euphemism for any gay male. Perhaps it is not surprising that this use of the word seems unknown in Canada, although “Lebanese” for lesbian (which was widely used in the 1980s on the Canadian prairies, where actual immigrants from Lebanon were rare) is not listed at all. The author explains that the word “lesbian” itself was originally based on a place-name, since the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who wrote about love between women in the seventh century BC, came from the island of Lesbos. Presumably any native of that island can still be called a Lesbian, regardless of sexual identity.
According to this book, the use of place-names to indicate queer sexuality or queer culture continues in references to San Francisco (no surprise there) as well as to less-obvious locations such as Santa Fe. References to ethnicity or culture are included in traditional terms such as “the English vice” as a (non-British) term for BDSM (bondage/discipline/dominance/submission/sadism/masochism) and “French letter” as a (non-French) term for a condom. More recent references to culture in queerspeak include terms for those who are attracted to a particular race or ethnicity, such as “rice queens” (gay men who prefer Asian partners) and “Zebras” (white queers who prefer black partners and vice versa).
Other listed words for those whose sex practices are unusual or controversial even in the queer community include “Butcher boy” for a gay man who has sex with lesbians, “vampire” for a gay man who steals other people’s partners, “Gillette blade” for a bisexual woman, and “switch hitter,” derived from baseball terminology, for a bisexual woman or man.
“Beard” is listed as a term for a woman who dates gay men to help them “pass” as heterosexual. Besides being notable as a term used in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” (written in Middle English in the 1380s) to mean a practical joke, this use of “beard” seems similar to “fag hag,” except that a “hag” is usually assumed to initiate friendships with gay men for her own reasons.
As the author explains somewhat apologetically in his introduction, more queer terms (especially those that refer to the body and to specific sex practices) apply to men than to women. Considering this, it is notable that the word “gay” itself (which literally means happy) first seems to have been used as a sexual term in Shakespeare’s time to refer to women who were thought to be promiscuous. Like other feminine terms which have been appropriated by feminine men, “gay” came to apply to men who were also considered slutty because they were homosexual (even if monogamous). The extension of this use of the word to lesbians brings it back to women by a roundabout route. This book includes a more recent woman-centric term (which could possibly be extended to males) to mean “aroused:” the cute acronym “NDL” for “nipples don’t lie.”
This book is hard to summarize; it really needs to be read from cover to cover. Many of the black-and-white illustrations between blocks of print are vintage porn images from yesteryear. The flexible binding of this book enables it to be spread flat for easy reading. It deserves to be added to the growing library of scholarly material on queer culture through the ages.