English Gay Language, Part I [III A]
Some relevant characteristics of the English language may be noted at the outset. English has been extraordinarily welcoming to words from other tongues, especially from French and Latin. Today, these lexical items far outnumber those inherited from the Anglo-Saxons. In addition, English shows a great deal of informality. Its grammar is simple. Moreover, it shows an easy familiarity with words. Clipped forms, such as sod, fag, lez, and so forth, are common. Such reductions have several emotional valences (and as the examples cited show, not always pleasant ones).
Sparsely recorded as it is, of all the early medieval vernaculars Anglo-Saxon (or Old English; to 1066) preserves the most fullest range of offerings. A diminutive of baeddel, a hermaphrodite, the word baedling occurs in Aelfric’s Glossary of ca. 1000 as the equivalent of the Latin terms effeminatus and mollis. Although there is some argument about the matter, the first term is probably the origin of the common modern English adjective bad. A synonym from the same glossary is waepenwifstere, male wife. Not exclusively sexual, the term deorling could designate a young male favorite or minion. The most intriguing of these early terms is scratta, stemming from the Old Norse skratte, a wizard, or goblin. The English term combines the idea of sexual irregularity with that of magical powers—the qualities of a shaman in short. In short, this array of terms includes the idea of physiological hermaphroditism (often confused with homosexual orientation), assumption of the female role (in becoming a “wife”), intergenerational sex (the minion or catamite), and finally that of being, so to speak, a powerful queen, one able to summon magical powers, and therefore to be feared.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 inflicted a massive invasion of French words and usage, reinforced in some instances by the Latin of the church. The two flow together in the thirteenth-century import sodomy. By 1538, though, it had been ousted in legal usage by another import from the continent, buggery (law of Henry VIII, 1537).
Elizabethan times saw the introduction of classical terms, such as Ganymede and catamite. For these imported terms designating the object of pederastic relations there was a native equivalent ingle (of unknown origin). Imported from the Continent was bardash (French and perhaps also Spanish, but ultimately of Persian origin). A learned Elizabethan innovation was tribade (from the Greek for to rub) for a lesbian.
Further ecclesiastical influence is seen in abomination (seventeenth century) and unnatural crime or vice. Both derive from scripture, the first from the Hebrew Bible, especially Leviticus; the second from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1:26-27). Sometimes the first word was written “abhomination,” with an h added to suggest that the practice is a departure from the human (homo = man). While the term retained a sinister aura, it has always been somewhat mysterious, signifying something that is taboo, though one can’t quite say why. The idea of the unnatural was much more fully buttressed, notably by the Stoic and medieval philosophy of Natural Law. While there are many logical objections to this use, we are still afflicted with the term today.
Early eighteenth-century London saw the appearance of the subculture of the Molly Houses, gay clubs in which men could gather for sex and various ceremonies. After their discovery they were suppressed. The name Molly fits in with the later tendency to dub male homosexuals with women’s names, especially (as in this case) with diminutives. Yet the term may also display a reminiscence of the Latin term mollis, weak, which was also used with reference to masturbation and effeminacy.
The late eighteenth century saw the appearance of the first slang dictionary, that of Captain Francis Grose, The Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785). In this book Molly is defined as “A Miss Molly; an effeminate fellow, a sodomite,” showing that the term had survived the closing of the houses. Grose also includes indorser, defined as a “sodomite,” etymologically someone concerned with rears.
In the eighteenth century queer designated any sort of swindle, including passing of counterfeit money (hence the later “queer as a three-dollar bill”). The sexual meaning emerged only in nineteenth-century Britain. At that time, though, few would have predicted its extraordinary fortune in the closing years of the twentieth century.
During the eighteenth century, a combination of linguistic purity and prudery temporarily retarded the growth of sexual terminology, at least in the more formal registers of the language. Characteristically reticent is the description of buggery as “a crime not to be named among Christians.” The legal scholar William Blackstone went so far as to state the formula only in Latin: inter Cillud crimen horribile inter Christianos non nominandum. On the continent the idea that homosexuality is the nameless sin is older.
The Hellenism of the Romantic Movement, whose most prominent representative was the bisexual poet Lord Byron, led to some popularity of Greek love.
With the modern meaning, lesbian became salient in the nineteenth century; as also the (rare) Sapphist. Terms for female homosexuality have always been less numerous by far than those for gay men.
Reticence and reluctance to be direct continued through the nineteenth century, even though the Victorians were not as prudish as is sometimes though. Circumspection was often wise, witness Whitman’s adhesiveness (a term derived from the pseudoscience of phrenology).
However, several developments in late-Victorian England, including the Cleveland Street affair and the Oscar Wilde trials, served to draw back the curtain of secrecy. So we find the street homosexuals, the Mary Anns. Rarified circles took up uranian (a version of the German urning) and calamite (from a group of poems by Walt Whitman). Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s companion, wrote of the “Love that dare not speak its name.” Perhaps as an indication of internalized homophobia, Douglas used the term shame by Alfred Douglas. A euphemism, more pleasant than most, was musical. Although this term anticipates the later gay affinity for the musical theater, it was not originally connected with it.
At the end of the century the term bisexuality came along in the baggage, so to speak, of the pair homosexual and heterosexual. Inventive ways of alluding to bisexuality, including AC/DC (reflecting the new technology of electricity) and bimetallism (a coy reference to a turn-of-the-century economic controversy). Later are double-gaited (from racing), ambisextrous (a coy variation on ambidextrous), and gillette (a razor blade that can cut on both sides; a rare 1950s term for a bisexual woman).
Transvestite entered English in the early twenties, deriving from a major 1910 treatise in German by Magnus Hirschfeld. It replaced the term Eonism, preferred by Havelock Ellis. The word transsexual did not show up until the 1940s, when it appeared from time to time in the popular American magazine Sexology.
The twentieth century was the heyday of the expert, with medical doctors, psychiatrists, and sociologists offering authoritative pronouncements on same-sex behavior, about which they understood very little. Anomaly was one term favored in the twenties. The whole was framed as a matter of course by the discipline of abnormal psychology. Some other terms introduced by these professionals include homosexual panic, situational homosexuality, latent homosexuality, deviation, and injustice collecting (a supposed homosexual propensity for complaining). In this olla podrida, one useful term stands out: sexual orientation.