Café Discovery: Of Queers and Fags, Hussies and Catamites

I have a fascination with words and how they came to mean what they do and take on the connotations that they have.  

Much of the quoted material here…and some that is unquoted…comes from the Online Etymological Dictionary.  I do the research so you don’t have to.

Of Queers and Fags, Hussies and Catamites

queer – 1508, strange, peculiar, eccentric, from Scottish, perhaps from Low Ger. (Brunswick dialect) queer (oblique, off-center),  related to Ger. quer  (oblique, perverse, odd), from O.H.G. twerh (oblique), from PIE base twerk (to turn, twist, wind), related to thwart. The verb “to spoil, ruin” is first recorded 1812.   The sense of “homosexual” was first recorded in 1922; the noun in this sense is 1935, from the adjective.

I admit to being queer.  But I am not spoiled or ruined.

The word homosexual dates from 1892, in C.G. Chaddock’s translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, from homo-, a combination form from the Greek homos (same) and the Latin-based sexual.

‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it.

— H. Havelock Ellis, Studies in Psychology, 1897

Homosexual was first used as a noun in 1907 in French, in English in 1912.  Interesting comment in the etymological dictionary:  In technical use, either male or female; but in non-technical use almost always male. The slang shortened form homo first appeared in 1929. The alternative homophile was coined in reference to the homosexual regarded as a person of a particular social group, rather than a sexual abnormality, in 1960, but it didn’t catch on.  Homophobia is from 1969.

Well, I’m sure homophobia is from way before that, but the word is from 1969.

Lesbian dates to 1591, from the Latin Lesbius, from Greek lesbios (of Lesbos).  Lesbos is a Greek island in northeastern Aegean Sea.  The  name originally may have meant “wooded.”  Lesbos was the home of Sappho, great lyric poet whose erotic and romantic verse embraced women as well as men.   The meaning “relating to homosexual relations between women” dates from 1890.  There is a movement among inhabitants of Lesbos to return the meaning of Lesbian to them.

Lesbianism on the other hand dates from 1870 and the noun lesbian in this sense was first recorded in 1925. The slang variant lez is from 1929; lesbo first attested in 1940. Before this, the principal figurative use (common in 17c.) was lesbian rule (1601) a mason’s rule of lead, of a type used on Lesbos, which could be bent to fit the curves of a molding.  Hence it came to mean “pliant morality or judgment.”

And this is the nature of the equitable, a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality. … For when the thing is indefinite the rule also is indefinite, like the leaden rule used in making the Lesbian moulding; the rule adapts itself to the shape of the stone and is not rigid, and so too the decree is adapted to the facts.”

–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

(1)  It’s all the masons’ fault…probably with a capital M.  (2) Interesting thing about 1929.  With all the homos and lezzies running around, it’s no wonder the stock market crashed.

One follow-up on lesbian.  There are so many more words used about gay men.

dyke: 1931, Amer.Eng., probably a shortening of morphadike, a dialectal garbling of hermaphrodite by some idiot or other.  But bulldyker (engage in lesbian activities) is attested from 1921 and bulldyke as a noun in 1926.  A source from 1896 lists dyke as slang for “the vulva.”

The word ‘homosexual’ appears in the etymological discussions of the following other words:

swish: 1756, probably imitative of the sound made by something brushing against or through something. The sense of “effeminate homosexual” is 1930s in homosexual slang, probably from notion of mincing motion.

flame: c. 1340.  The meaning “a sweetheart” is attested from 1647; the figurative sense of “burning passion” was in M.E.  The verb sense of “unleash invective on a computer network” is from 1980s.  Flamer, flaming (glaringly homosexual) are homosexual slang from 1970s, but flamer “glaringly conspicuous person or thing” (1809) and flaming “glaringly conspicuous” (1781) are much earlier in the general sense, both originally with reference to “wenches.”

gay: 1178, full of joy or mirth, from O.Fr. gai “gay, merry,” perhaps from Frank. *gahi (cf. O.H.G. wahi “pretty”).  By 1300 the meaning became brilliant, showy.  1951 is usually given as the earliest date for the slang meaning “homosexual” ,

but this is certainly too late; gey cat “homosexual boy” is attested in N. Erskine’s 1933 dictionary of “Underworld & Prison Slang;” the term gey cat (gey is a Scot. variant of gay) was used as far back as 1893 in Amer.Eng. for “young hobo,” one who is new on the road and usually in the company of an older tramp, with catamite connotations.  Gey cats also were said to be tramps who offered sexual services to women.

Note about the catamite thing.  Catamitus is the corrupt Latin spelling of Ganymedus, who was Jupiter’s beloved cup-bearer (Wink, wink.  Nudge, nudge.  Say no more).  It came to mean, of course, the younger partner in a pederastic relationship between two males.  Reams Volumes could be written about the historical significance of such relationships…and probably have.

Homosexuals, among themselves, used the word gay in this sense since at least 1920.  Rawson [“Wicked Words”] notes a male prostitute using gay in reference to male homosexuals (but also to female prostitutes) in 1889. Ayto [“20th Century Words”] calls attention to the ambiguous use of the word in the 1868 song “The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store,” by U.S. female impersonator W. S. Hays.

The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store, (1868)

–William Shakespeare Hays, 1837-1907

Solo:  O listen now and I’ll sing a song,

Chorus:  How are you ladies, Howdy;

S:  I’ll sing it all for it won’t take long,

C:  Ah! ladies ha-ha!

S:  It’s about a chap, perhaps you know,

   I’m told he is “Nobody’s beau,”

   But maybe you all knew that before,

   He’s a lively clerk in a Dry-Goods Store.


O! Augustus Dolphus is his name,

From Skiddy-ma-dink they say he came,

He’s a handsome man and he’s proud and poor,

This gay young clerk in the Dry-Goods Store.

There’s more.

The word gay in the 1890s had an overall tinge of promiscuity.  A gay house was a brothel.  The suggestion of immorality in the word can be traced back to 1637.  Gay as a noun meaning “a (usually male) homosexual” is attested from 1971.

faggot, meaning male homosexual: 1914.  The shortened form fag is from 1921.  Both are probably from earlier contemptuous term for “woman” (1591), especially an old and unpleasant one, in reference to faggot (1) “bundle of sticks,” as something awkward that has to be carried (cf. baggage).  It was used in this sense in 20c. by D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among others.  It may also be reinforced by Yiddish faygele (homosexual, lit. “little bird”).  It also may have roots in British public school slang fag (a junior who does certain duties for a senior” (1785), with suggestions of catamite).  This was also used as a verb.

He [the prefect] used to fag me to blow the chapel organ for him.

–“Boy’s Own Paper,” 1889


The oft-heard statement that male homosexuals were called faggots in reference to their being burned at the stake is an etymological urban legend. Burning was sometimes a punishment meted out to homosexuals in Christian Europe (on the suggestion of the Biblical fate of Sodom and Gomorah), but in England, where parliament had made homosexuality a capital offense in 1533, hanging was the method prescribed. Any use of faggot in connection with public executions had long become an English historical obscurity by the time the word began to be used for “male homosexual” in 20th century American slang, whereas the contemptuous slang word for “woman” (and the other possible sources or influences listed here) was in active use.

poof: c1850, effeminate man

nance: 1904. effeminate man, male homosexual

ponce: 1872, a pimp, a man supported by women.  Meaning “male homosexual,” W. H. Auden, 1932.

camp: 1909, tasteless, homosexual slang.  Popularized in 1964 by Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp”.

fay: 1393, fairy, from Latin, fata (the Fates).  Adj. meaning “homosexual” is attested from 1950s.

twink: c1400, a winking of an eye.  The meaning “young sexually attractive person” is first recorded from 1963 and probably comes from Twinkies, the trademark name of a cupcake cream-filled junk food introduced in 1930 by Continental Baking Company. The 1920s-30s British homosexual slang used a similar sense and now it is very popularly used, especially in porn. The site twink movies is the perfect example.

pansy: c1450, thought, remembrance.  Meaning “effeminate homosexual man” from 1929.

breeder: 1986, homosexual slang for heterosexual person

quean: “young, robust woman,” O.E. cwene “woman,” also “female serf, hussy, prostitute” (cf. portcwene “public woman”), from P.Gmc. *kwenon (cf. O.S. quan, O.H.G. quena, O.N. kona, Goth. qino “wife, woman”); see queen. Popular 16c.-17c. in sense “hussy.” Sense of “effeminate homosexual” is recorded from 1935, esp. in Australian slang.

Note to self:  Track the word “woman” in the near future.

fairy: c1300, enchantment, magic.  The meaning “effeminate homosexual male” is first recorded in 1895.

fruit: c1175, original sense meant vegetables as well.  Narrower sense c1225.  “Odd person, eccentric,” 1910.  “Male homosexual,” 1935.

troll: 1377, to go about, stroll.  Figurative sense of “to draw in as with a moving bait, entice, allure” is from 1565.  Meaning “to cruise in search of sexual encounters” is recorded from 1967, originally in homosexual slang.

punk: 1596, prostitute, harlot, strumpet.  1904, underworld slang for criminal’s apprentice, with overtones of catamite.  1917, worthless person, especially a young hoodlum.

queen: Meaning “male homosexual” (especially a feminine and ostentatious one) first recorded 1924; probably an alteration of quean in this sense.

One has to wonder about the fascination people have had about effeminate men.  One should, I suppose, also wonder about the connection people make between homosexuality and pederasty and wonder why they think that it would be appropriate to do so in this day and age.  The connection between homosexuals and prostitution, at least in the form of the language we use, is also interesting, don’t you think?  


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    • Robyn on June 1, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    …is the house near Wilmslow, Cheshire, in which Alan Turing took his own life on June 7, 1954.  

    He took potassium cyanide.

    He left a half-eaten apple; symbol of lost innocence.


    • Alma on June 1, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    the first time I heard the word homosexual, but I do remember the first time I heard the word lesbian.

    I was about 7 and my cousin (a male about 9 or 10) from Tenn. was up visiting.  I had just beat him in a bike race, tree climbing competition and he called me a lesbian.  I went to my Mom to ask her what it meant.  She just said something like, Its a woman that loves other women.  I just looked at my cousin and laughed and laughed, which made him mad because it didn’t upset me.

    Later in life, as an adult, I found out I was always held up to this cousin as “Why couldn’t he be more like me.”  I never knew or dreamed his parents would do that.  We lived so far away and they didn’t even see me much.  Well after I found that out, I’ve always felt bad for the way I always challenged him, and understand his attitude with me more.  

    • kj on June 2, 2008 at 4:26 am

    already… will read this Monday morning, Robyn.  thanks in advance!

  1. Thanks for this, Robyn – great stuff!

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