Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.
The word lesbian and the more old-fashioned sapphism, both words used to describe female homosexuality, are derived from the very same source, an Ancient Greek woman known as Sappho of Lesbos.
Sappho was a poet renowned throughout the Greek world. She is the only woman among the so-called Nine Lyric Poets, a group of poets the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria deemed worthy of critical study. Her works were widely admired throughout the ancient period, with some of her contemporaries even describing her as a tenth member of the Muses, the nine inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts.
Unfortunately, very little of her poetry has survived. Most of what is known is from the fragments that have survived and in references to her works by others.
So how did Sappho become the source of not one but two words for female homosexuality?
The reason that Sappho has become so closely associated with female homosexuality is due to the only one of her many poetic works that has survived in its entirety. The so-called Ode to Aphrodite is a lyric poem in which the speaker, one of the few occasions where Sappho actually identifies herself by name, calls on Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, for help in the pursuit of her beloved. Until the 20th Century, the sex of this individual has been translated as being male. However, in 1835 the German philologist Theodor Bergk posited that the object of Sappho’s love in the Ode was actually female due to the mistranslation, deliberate or otherwise, of a single word. While this reading was not fully accepted until the 1960s, it has since become the standard translation.
However, for an individual who is pretty much considered the quintessential lesbian, there is a surprising amount of debate regarding her sexuality, debate that dates right back to Classical Athens. Sappho was a frequent subject of Athenian comedies, often being portrayed as a promiscuous heterosexual woman. The earliest known reference to her supposed sexuality dates to the Hellenistic period, which mostly consisted of scholars dismissing the ‘slanderous’ accusations of her homosexuality.
Until the 19th Century, the word lesbian was used to describe something that was actually from Lesbos. However, in the mid-19th Century, scholars, scientists and doctors began to examine the somewhat neglected, in comparison to the phenomenon of male homosexuality, field of female homosexuality. This coincided with the increasingly popular new theory of Sappho’s sexual orientation. It was only natural, therefore, that when searching for a term to describe female homosexuality, one is drawn to the individual who, at the time, might be considered the ‘original’. Thus the terms sapphism and lesbian came into being, the former a more ‘official’ term and the latter a colloquial descriptor that eventually became the term female homosexuals used to describe themselves.
However, the ‘new’ use of the word lesbian has not been accepted by everyone. As one could imagine, the inhabitants of Lesbos, the real Lesbians, might have a problem a problem with it. In 2008, a group of Lesbians took the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece (OLKE) to court in an attempt to ban the organisation from using the word lesbian in its name. Perhaps not surprisingly, the litigation failed. Given the worldwide usage of the word, I think they may have left it a little too late.