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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 16d - When did we become Lesbians?

Saturday, November 25, 2017 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 29 (previously 16d) - When did we become Lesbians?  - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/11/25 - listen here)

For all that we’ve had a generation of hearing queer people say, “I don’t like labels,” the power of names and labels is hard to deny. One of the arguments we hear from people who say that lesbians didn’t exist until the late 19th century sexologists invented the concept, is that no one identified as a lesbian before the 19th century and how can something exist without a name?

There are several arguments against that position. One of them is that the word “lesbian”, used in the sense of a woman who had homoerotic desires, came into use much earlier than that. Another argument is that there were other words in use throughout history to refer to women who had sex with other women. But it’s also true that words change in meaning over time, and that the ideas represented by the word “lesbian” today may be different from what people in other eras meant when they used the word. And it’s true that the specific shades of meaning implied by various labels don’t correspond precisely to our current meaning of “lesbian.” But then, there are ongoing debates today about just what exactly the category of lesbian encompasses.

Today’s podcast is going to take a tour through some of the vocabulary used in European history for women who loved or desired other women. I’m also going to touch briefly on some Arabic terms, but I don’t have the resources available at the moment to cover the rest of the world. I’m looking specifically at words for persons. There was a parallel vocabulary of adjectives and verbs, and different forms of the language evolved at different times. For example, “lesbian” as an adjective, talking about desires and acts, seems to have emerged earlier than the widespread use of the word as a noun, referring to a person. Similarly, the word “Sapphic” used as an adjective to describe feelings and activities seems to show up earlier than “Sapphist” as a word for a person. Some words were in widespread use across cultures, showing up in forms specific to the various languages. We can see the evolution of the Latin word “fricatrix” as it begins showing up in vernacular languages across Europe. Other words, especially slang terms, were found only in a single language, like the Dutch word “lollepot.”

It might be useful to think of these words as having three types of origins. There are words that have their primary meaning as describing what it is that lesbians do. We’ll see that most of these descriptive terms have to do with the act of rubbing, referring to that action in the context of sexual activity. Second are the metonymic words that refer to someone or something that has come to be associated with lesbians but had some other original meaning. The most obvious example of this group is the word lesbian itself, which originally meant simply a person from the island of Lesbos and acquired its sexual sense by a roundabout path because Sappho lived on Lesbos. The third set of words can be slippery to identify. These are slang terms, which derive their meaning from an indirect allusion or from some coincidence of reference. Finding their origins can be tricky because the word or phrase may mean something else on the surface and you have to find contexts where the sexual sense is unambiguous. A great example of this type of word is “gay”, though it won’t be one of the ones discussed here. It’s hard to figure out when the word “gay” first started to be used to mean homosexual because most of the time the interpretation is ambiguous. Often that’s exactly why slang terms come into use: because they can be used discretely.

So let’s follow the histories of some of these words and see where it leads us.


One of the most tantalizing words I’ll discuss is the Greek hetairistriai. It is perhaps the oldest clear reference for a woman who desires women and appears in a relatively positive context, but it is a hapax legomenon--a word that appears only once in surviving records, other than later sources quoting  that source--therefore it’s hard to think of it as a term in common use. It’s also awkward that we only have the word in the plural and it isn’t entirely certain what the singular form would be, though hetairistria is perhaps a good guess. Hetairistriai is used in Plato’s Symposium in a mythic tale of how human sexual attraction came into being. All people, so the story goes, were originally double-bodied beings that split into two. Those who descended from double-bodied creatures that were both male and female have heterosexual desires (although obviously Plato doesn’t use that term), while those who descended from double male bodied creatures are men who desire men, and those descended from double female bodied creatures are “hetairistriai”, who have no interest in men but are attracted to other women. The word has the same root as “heteira” or courtesan, but with no additional context it’s hard to know the exact relationship between the two words, whether hetairistriai means “women who love courtesans” or has some other sense.

The word appears rarely in later writings, and the examples that people cite are from dictionaries or from commentaries where it’s being used to discuss and define other words. A 5th century Byzantine dictionary considers dihetaristria to be equivalent to the word tribas (which we’ll discuss next), and glosses it as meaning “women who, like men, are oriented towards female companions for sex.” And similarly, a 10th century commentary of the 2nd century Roman author Lucian equates hetairistria and tribades. Another 10th century commentary, this time on the 2nd century Christian writer Clement of Alexandria, lists tribades, hetairistriai, and Lesbiai as all being equivalent in meaning.

One thing to notice in the definitions and explanations for these early terms is that there is often an implication that the label applies specifically to a woman who actively pursues other women, but with the implication that her female partner may not fit under the same definition if she merely passively allows herself to be pursued.

Tribas, Tribade

Chronologically, the next word that comes into use is tribas, from the Greek verb tribein meaning “to rub or wear down”. Tribas is used by classical Greek writers for women who have sex with women. The Greek plural, tribades, gave us the later use in various languages as tribade. We can find this term used in Greek astrological texts of the 1st and 2nd century to describe a woman whose stars result in her being a lover of women. The context and discussion implies that this is due to masculinizing factors in her horoscope. Like the classical Romans, the Greeks viewed sexual roles in terms of active and passive, rather than in terms of the gender of the sex partner. A woman who took the active role was considered to be taking on a male sexual role and therefore was expected to desire women.

The word tribas was taken directly into Classical Latin and is used by authors such as Seneca and Martial to refer to a woman who has sex with other women, not only by rubbing but also by penetration. Given the way that classical Romans understood sexuality, they made a distinction in considering only the active partner--the top, if you will--to be a tribas.

Medical manuals of the early Christian era are another early source of examples of tribade to discuss women with homoerotic desires.

Tribade continued in regular use during the medieval period and later, well into the modern era. As noted previously, there are 10th century writings that specifically comment on it meaning the same thing as hetairistriai and lesbia.

In the later 16th century, the scandalous French writer Brantôme included a long discussion of women who loved women in his book The Lives of Gallant Ladies. He uses the terms tribade and fricatrix, or in French, fricatrice, as well as using lesbian as a noun, clearly in the modern sense as being equivalent to those terms. Finding writers who use sets of different terms together like this help us be certain of which of the possible senses is being included.

In the 16th century, in addition to France, tribade is found in use in Italy and England. Spanish had its own version at this time, as tribada. In English, it continued in use as late as the 18th century, although it was falling out of popularity by then. By the Renaissance, the term tribade was starting to acquire a more specific meaning of a very sexually aggressive lesbian, and became particularly associated with the myth that lesbians were associated with an enlarged clitoris capable of penetrative sex.


One of the difficulties in tracing the use of the words lesbia and lesbian to mean women who desire women is the word’s basic meaning of “a woman from the island of Lesbos” in combination with the somewhat fuzzy reputation in early Greek and Latin writings that the women of Lesbos had for various atypical sexual practices. Despite the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry, Sappho of Lesbos became a figure associated with excessive heterosexual desire in satirical Greek plays of the 4th century BC. It isn’t clear whether the more generic sexual meanings of Lesbian in early sources were due to an entirely independent reputation that the women of Lesbos had, or whether all the various sexual implications derive from the various incarnations of Sappho’s reputation.

The Greek playwright Aristophanes, in the 5th century BC, used a verb with the same root as lesbian to mean “to practice oral sex” in a heterosexual context, and this meaning was one of the senses the word had through late Antiquity. But eventually Lesbos also became associated with women who loved women, and again it’s unclear whether this was specifically due to an association with Sappho or whether there were independent reasons for it. In the 2nd century, the Roman writer Lucian has one of the characters in his “Dialogues of the Courtesans” say, “They say there are women in Lesbos with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men.” This is in his dialogue about Megilla, who comes across either as an extremely butch woman or as a trans man (if I may be forgiven for using modern categories). And Megilla is, literally, a woman from Lesbos. But in the context of the dialogue, the courtesan relates how she was hired to entertain Megilla and Megilla’s female partner. The ambiguity is there, but there’s a clear implication that the phrase “a woman from Lesbos” was meant to suggest sexual attraction to women.

In post-classical use, the first fairly unambiguous example we have of lesbiai (the plural) to mean homosexual women comes from the previously mentioned 10th century commentary on Clement of Alexandria that groups tribades, hetairistriai, and Lesbiai together. While any one of the terms might sometimes be ambiguous, setting all three together in this way is strongly suggestive.

As mentioned above, the 16th century French writer Brantôme used the word lesbian clearly in the sense of a female homosexual. And in English, the earliest example found to date is in an early 18th century satirical poem, which uses lesbian several times as an adjective, but concludes with proclaiming a woman “chief of the tribades or lesbians” which is unarguably the modern sense.


It might be surprising that the term sapphist is fairly late to arrive to the party. The earliest known use in English is in a late 18th century diary entry by society gossip-monger Hester Thrale who, in contradiction to the popular image of Ponsonby and Butler--the Ladies of Llangollen--as the epitome of chaste romantic friendship, refers to them as “damned sapphists”. The adjective sapphic was in fairly common use in English in the 18th century, so it’s likely that this was not an isolated invention on Thrale’s part. By the early 20th century, sapphist came to be a somewhat upscale term, used by the literati with full awareness of its classical associations.


Like the Greek word tribas, the Latin word fricatrix or frictrix derives from a root meaning “to rub”--the same root we get “friction” from. The early Christian writer Tertullian uses frictrix in a sexual sense, possibly implying a woman who performs oral sex, but it isn’t entirely clear that he intended homosexual activity.

But in an astrological text dating to some time between the 2nd and 7th century and associated with the name of Hermes Trismegistos, we find fricatrix used to describe a woman with a horoscope that inclines her to love women, and it describes her partners also using fricatrix. This suggests a more egalitarian sense than sometimes found for tribade, which often seemed to imply an active-passive distinction. In early modern English the word is found as fricatrice, and a sense of mutual activity is emphasized in the less common alternate form confricatrice.

Italian turned the original Latin word into fregatore, which we encounter by  the 16th century. In French, we find frigarelle in the same era, and a few decades later frigarelle turns in English too.


It can be difficult to untangle the contexts in which the word sodomite and its derivatives indicate female homosexuals. The history of what types of activities were considered sodomy is complicated and it changed greatly over the centuries. In the early medieval period, sodomite meant someone who performed any sort of sex act that was considered to be counter to nature, including same-sex acts but by no means confined to them. During the high medieval era, there was more of a tendency for it to mean homosexual acts specifically, and we find references to “female sodomites”, as well as to the Latin sodomita with a female sense. There is a 13th century Italian record where a woman who boasts of giving her female lovers pleasure using a strap-on dildo is called sodomita, but it’s possible that the word more narrowly referred to penetrative sex between women as opposed to any same-sex act. There is a rare example in English around 1600 of the form sodomitesse.


Another set of words that overlap with the nomenclature of male homosexuality derive from the word “bugger”. Bugger itself has a rather convoluted origin, deriving from Bulgar that is, a Bulgarian, it picked up the meaning of “religious heretic” due to attitudes by western Catholic Europeans toward the Eastern Orthodox religion that was common in Bulgaria. But there was a long association of religious heresy with forbidden sexual practices, and in medieval France the word shifted in meaning to a purely sexual sense with a similar meaning to sodomite. In the 16th century, we find the Spanish word bujarrona and the Italian buzerone both used specifically for women who had sex with women.


Another term that was sometimes applied to women who had sex with women, but where the specific meaning was somewhat different is hermaphrodite. This derives from a premodern understanding of sexual desire that tried to fit everything into a heterosexual mould. So if a woman desired other women, this was considered to indicate a masculine personality. The combination of a male personality in a female body was labeled hermaphrodite, and similarly people with male bodies who were considered to behave in a feminine manner were similarly labeled. It’s also likely that some of the people identified as hermaphrodites may have had ambiguous genitalia. I’d hesitate to say that hermaphrodite was in any way a label for women who desired women because its use was based on entirely different models of gender and sexuality than we have today. But it was definitely a term that such a woman might be called by her contemporaries who were trying to understand her behavior. In general, the heyday of the hermaphrodite model was around the 15th through 17th centuries and the term doesn’t seem to have been used for same-sex desire outside that period.


There are some early texts that use the Latin term virago--literally a masculine woman--in a context that equates it with tribas. One example comes from a 4th century astrology manual by Julius Firmicus Maternus. But I’d be hesitant to consider virago to have an unambiguously sexual sense, since it is commonly used to talk about social behavior where a woman is considered to be usurping what was considered to be a masculine role in general. This is a general issue with a number of terms in cultural contexts where the desire for women was considered to be inherently masculine.


In addition to words that were in use across a number of different cultures, though often adapted into those languages in local forms, there are words that came into use in specific languages, either as new descriptive coinages or as slang terms.


The popularity of words meaning “one who rubs” to describe those who engaged in lesbian sex was not just a legacy of Greek and Latin words with that meaning. In the 17th century, a medical manual by Bartholin gives rubster as an equivalent for the more learned confricatrice.


In 17th century Dutch, we begin to find the word lollepot used for women who have sex with women, a narrowing of meaning from earlier use where it simply meant “an immodest woman.” I don’t know what the literal meaning of the word was originally.


Readers of Sarah Waters’ novels about lesbians in the Victorian era are familiar with the English slang term tommy. Slang terms like this can be hard to pin down in origin unless the context of use is quite specific. In this case, we have a clear example from a late 18th century English poem that reads in part:

“Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:”

This sense of tommy is reminiscent of the modern use of tomboy to mean a girl who rejects gender stereotypes and behaves in ways associated with boys. But rather than tomboy being a watered down derivation from the sexual sense of tommy, the origin may go in the other direction. Tomboy begins showing up in the mid 16th century to mean a particularly rude or boisterous boy, but by the end of the 16th century it had been transferred to meaning a “bold or immodest woman” or a woman who behaved in ways considered masculine. Tom, short for Thomas, was at that time considered to be a name for a generic man, with maybe a connotation of being rude or ill-mannered. Consider the word tom-foolery, but also the use of “tom” in tomcat to signify a male cat. So tommy to mean a lesbian most likely was derived from the more general gender-transgressive sense of tomboy.



While most of this discussion has focused on European cultures, I promised to touch on some historic Arabic terms that show interesting parallels. I mentioned some early astrological texts that were a source of vocabulary about homoerotic relations. An Arabic translation of a 1st century Greek astrology manual by Dorotheos of Sidon discusses constellations that result in a woman desiring women and uses the word sahaqa for such a woman. This is the term found throughout Arabic literature of the medieval period, sometimes as suhaqiyya as the basic word for a woman who has sex with women. Like tribade and fricatrix, the root meaning of the word is “one who rubs”, generally implying a particular type of sexual technique. This term and associated words have been in use up to the modern era.


Another term found in Arabic literature falls more in the slang category and has intriguing connotations. This is zarifa or tharifa. (I believe these are variants of the same word but I haven’t been able to confirm it solidly.) In origin, this term means “someone elegant, witty, and charming” and is part of a medieval Arabic esthetic movement that prized sophistication and elegance. There are descriptions of how women who were sexually interested in women would use these terms as something of a code, saying that a woman was tharifa to indicate that she was a suhaqiyya and part of a subculture of women who loved women. But the word tharifa was never exclusive to this sexual sense. One might think of it as similar in implication to “gay” in that there were always non-sexual interpretations available as well.


So the answer to the question “when did we become lesbians?” depends to some extent on whether you’re speaking specifically of the word lesbian used as a noun to denote a woman whose primary sexual and romantic orientation is to other women, or whether the question is when did people have a vocabulary available to talk about homoerotic relations between women, or whether you’re being a stickler for some particular shade of meaning equivalent to the modern understanding of the word.

But is there a single modern understanding of the word lesbian? Think about all the arguments people have over what degree of commitment and experience is required to bestow the title of lesbian on a woman. Is it appropriate to speak of a bisexual woman as being in a lesbian relationship if she happens to be with a woman? Is someone allowed to claim the identity of lesbian if--for reasons that seem convincing to her--she chooses to be in a relationship with a man, despite feeling a primary orientation towards women? One could argue that some far future historian studying the use of the word lesbian in the 20th and 21st century would have a hard time coming to a clear definition of exactly what the boundaries of the category were.

Let us keep that in mind when we’re studying the vocabulary of the past and trying to sort out exactly when a woman might first have called herself a lesbian to claim an understanding of herself that we would recognize today under that banner.

Show Notes

This episode discusses the history of words for women who loved women throughout recorded European history. What words were used? Where did they come from? What shades of meaning did they have? And how did those meanings change over time?

In this episode we talk about the following words:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: