Case study: terms for lesbian(ism)

Note: This study was originally published in January 2012. An update of 2018 can be seen at the foot of the page.

Words for female homosexual[ity] were under-recorded in the original OED. The sexual sense of lesbian (both adjective and noun) was left out of OED1, and – most unusually – we have clear evidence of the deliberate decision to continue to exclude it from the Dictionary during the editing of the first Supplement in 1933 (see Brewer 2007b: 49-50). This is striking, given that the 1933 Supplement did include, for the first time, the term homosexual (adj.), defined as ‘Pertaining to or characterized by sexual propensity for one’s own sex’. Male homosexual activity was then (and up to 1967) a criminal offence in England and Wales; female homosexuality was never classed as a sexual offence. Along with lesbianismlesbian (adjective and noun) was finally added to OED in R. W. Burchfield’s second Supplement in 1976 (vol 2), with quotations dating from 1890 (1870 for lesbianism); in fact it was used in print as early as 1732; see Earlier terms for lesbian(ism) below. The second Supplement (4 vols published 1972-86) also added a number of related terms:

  •  bull-dike (quotations from 1926)
  •  butch (first clear example is dated 1965; the entry bunches several senses together)
  •  dike (quotations from 1942) and dikey (from 1964)
  •  femme (quotation of 1966)
  •  Les (quotations from 1942)
  •  lesbo (quotations from 1940
  •  Lizzie (quotations from 1942)

All these terms have been included in the HTOED, since as we have seen (previous page) HTOED was based on OED2, itself an amalgamation of the first edition of OED with Burchfield’s second Supplement. OED3 has since added several more terms relating to lesbian, e.g.

carpet muncher (1992), girl-on-girl (1995), lady-love (2003), lipstick lesbian(ism) (1984), mantee (1937), Marge(1957), Margery (1936), mom (1957), muff-diver (1930), rubster (1657), rug muncher (1981)

As indicated by the date of first usage (in brackets), some of these words have come into usage since the second Supplement was published (and therefore couldn’t possibly have been included either in this dictionary or in previous versions of OED), while others were available to be recorded but failed to make an entry – perhaps because consciously or unconsciously censored by the editors; perhaps because the evidence was for some reason not available.

So what happens if one clicks on the thesaurus link for lesbian, noun, when consulting OED Online today, in search of what the HTOED editors (in their introduction to the printed work) call a ‘cultural map’ of the phenomenon? The result (as of December 2011) is a list of synonyms organized by date of first usage which reads as follows:

  • tribade (1601)
  • Sapphist (1923)
  • Lesbian (1925)
  • bull-dike (1926)
  • Les (1929)
  • muff-diver (1930)
  • Margery (1936)
  • mantee (1937)
  • lesbo (1940)
  • butch (1941)
  • dike (1942)

The results for lesbian, adjective, are

  • Lesbian (1890)
  • lesbic (1892)
  • dikey (1964)
  • girl-on-girl   (1984)

and for lesbianism

  • tribadism (1811-19)
  • Lesbianism (1870)
  • tribady (1882)
  • Sapphism (1890)
  • lipstick lesbianism (1993)
  • girl-on-girl (1995)
  • lady-love (2003)

This would appear to tell one that terms for lesbian(ism) began to be used in the 19th century, proliferated in the 20th century, and scarcely existed before then – certainly not over the 17th and 18th centuries. The inference looks obvious: that lesbianism as a phenomenon was not articulated in the language until very recently, and that this fact may well bear some identifiable relation to the social history of the phenomenon itself. (Of course, the absence of evidence for the term does not indicate that women did not engage in sexual activity with each other, rather it may point to the taboo status of such activity – and as historians of sexuality routinely remind us, we should be cautious of assuming that today’s notions of sexuality can be straightforwardly mapped onto those of a previous age).

HTOED ‘cultural maps’ can be misleading

But this inference would be wrong – not altogether wrong, but wrong enough to mislead quite seriously. A number of terms describing or pertaining to lesbianism were in use from the Early Modern English period onwards, as abundantly documented in the works listed at the foot of this page. Some of these would almost certainly have been known to the first-edition lexicographers. However, as the 1933 Supplement’s deliberate exclusion of the sexual sense of lesbian itself would suggest, OED1 (in common with other dictionaries of the time) was notably reluctant to name and specify this phenomenon. The words with clear (or fairly clear) reference to sex between women that the first edition did include were defined in condemnatory terms: Sapphism was defined as ‘unnatural sexual relations between women, and tribade as ‘a woman who practises unnatural vice with other women’. Since HTOED is derived from OED, it follows that the ‘cultural map’ it offers of this sexual phenomenon simply reproduces the omissions of its source.


Earlier terms for lesbian(ism)

Pre-19th-century terms denoting lesbians or lesbianism include the word lesbian itself, used with clear sexual meaning in William King’s The Toast of 1732 (e.g. p. 16; cf. Donoghue 1993: 258-61).1 Other examples, all discussed or referred to by the books listed at the foot of this page, are as follows:

1. flats
Not in OED. Green’s Dictionary of Slang (2010) defines as ‘lesbian sexual intercourse’ and supplies with 10 quotations dated between 1655 and 1749. The first, from Mercurius Fumigosus 38 14-28 Feb. 303, reads

They walk out hand in hand like two disconsolate Virgins to seek Mandrakes to help them make perfect what their lost Sweethearts have left behinde, their concupiscence being so predominant in the House of Venus, that being at a game of Flatts upon a bed, a young man hearing the bed tell tales, steping softly to the door, discovered the Jogg, and so returned, myuch pittying the extremities poor female mortalls are driven to by the unkindness of men’.

(Mercurius Fumigosus was a news book produced by John Crouch, a Royalist journalist, in 1654-5. See Lancaster University project at [accessed 5 October 2018]).

2. fricatrice
This word was included in OED1 but defined simply as ‘a lewd woman’, a euphemistic definition which presumably equates to ‘prostitute’. ‘Prostitute’ is a defensible definition for the OED’s last cited example of use (see below), from Robinson Ellis’s translation of Catullus (as can be seen by checking the original Latin) but not, probably, for the first one at least, which appears to refer to refer specifically to (a prostitute who is) lesbian; see discussion in Wahl 1999:51. This interpretation is strengthened by the etymology of the word, from Latin fricare, to rub (cf. rubster below)

The OED1 quotations are as follows:

1607 B. Jonson, Volpone ii.55: ‘The Patron, or Saint George To a lewd harlot, a base fricatrice’

1708 P.A. Motteux, Wks F. Rabelais v.165: ‘Ingles, Fricatrices and He-Whores’

1871 R. Ellis, tr. Catullus Poems 10: ‘Like slaver abhorr’d breath’d from a foul fricatrice’

The entire entry is reproduced without change (including the definition) in the current version of OED Online.

3. rubster
This term, defined as ‘a woman who engages in sexual activity involving genital contact with other women’, has recently (March 2011) been included in OED3, with two quotations dated 1657 and 1663 and one of 2004 (from Borris 2003). For some reason this word does not turn up in the HTOED list of terms for lesbian (noun), as consulted December 2011.

4. tommy
Not in OED. Recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang where it is defined as ‘a lesbian’ and supplied with three quotations dated 1773, 1781, and 1813. The first of these is taken from an anonymous text quoted in Donoghue 1993: 5, and in full the quotation reads

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:
And if they don’t relinquish such a Crime,
I’ll give their Names to be the scoff of Time

Anon, The Adulteress, S. Bladon, 1773, pp. 25-6

Donoghue notes (from the 1984 edition of Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, s.v. Tom) a number of uses of the related word ‘tom’ to mean ‘a masculine woman of the town’, or ‘a woman who does not care for the society of others than those of her own sex’, commenting ‘”Tom(my)’ is just one example of how an unbroken slang tradition can go unrecorded by the OED’ (p. 5). Green’s Dictionary of Slang, with its uniquely full collection of quotations from a vast array of different texts (far superior to any other historical dictionary of slang), is therefore an unparalleled source of further evidence on terms for ‘lesbian’ as for all other types of slang.

The derogatory and offensive use of many of these terms opens up another area of study: were some less so than others, and what might that tell us about varying attitudes towards lesbianism, whether at different periods or by different groups of users?

But the lesson is clear: use HTOED evidence available on OED Online with extreme caution. As already pointed out, OED needs to make this caveat clear to its users but does not currently do so.


  • Andreadis, A. Harriette. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics, 1550-1714. London: University of Chicago Press, 2001
  • Borris, Kenneth. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Texts. New York; London: Routledge, 2003
  • Donoghue, Emma. Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. London: Scarlet Press, 1993
  • Robinson, David M. Closeted Writing and Lesbian and Gay Literature: Classical, Early Modern, Eighteenth-Century. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publ., 2006
  • Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
  • Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999

October 2018 update

The page above was originally published on EOED in January 2012, based on work completed in December 2011. In June 2018, OED3 revised its entry for lesbian and many related words. The first cited date for the word lesbian itself, for example, has now been antedated from 1925 (noun) and 1890 (adjective) to 1732 (for both noun and adjective), using quotations from W. King’s The Toast (1732) discussed above, as originally identified by Emma Donoghue in 1993 (Donoghue 1993: 258-61).

OED has now, to a certain extent, corrected the impression that there were very few pre-20c examples in English of terms related to lesbian. However, the Dictionary has yet to include flats (discussed by us in 2011 at no. 1 above), though it now gives ‘A woman who is romantically attracted to or sexually active with other women; a lesbian. hist’ as the first sense of tommy, again citing the source identified by Donoghue 1993. OED has also yet to identify rubber as a term for lesbian, although its revised entry for rubber (dated March 2011) prints a quotation to illustrate sense 9a of rubber n.1, ‘A person who rubs in any way’, which clearly indicates a sense related to female sexual activity:

1689    W. Salmon tr. Y. van Diemerbroeck Anat. Human Bodies  i. 183/2   Those female Rubbers do not feel less Pleasure in that Coition, than Men in their Copulation with Emission of Seed.

Our 2012 conclusion still stands, therefore: any inferences from OED data must be qualified with the understanding that a significant proportion of material in OED Online is as yet unrevised and hence untrustworthy.

Last updated on 11 October 2019


  1. This work of groundbreaking scholarship was one of the earliest publications by the novelist Emma Donoghue. It is based on her Cambridge PhD dissertation.