Welcome back to Queer History 101!
How do you define “queer”? What about “gay,” or “lesbian,” or “transgender”––or any of the many, many words that we use to talk about sexuality and gender? A good place to start would be the dictionary: it tells you what a word is, and then it tells you what it means. Right?
The dictionary has a long and complicated history with queerness. To learn more, I sat down with Dr. Stephen Turton, Research Fellow in English at the University of Cambridge––my alma mater! Turton researches the history of dictionaries from 1600 to the present with a special focus on the socially marginalized, especially queer folks.
His journey into the strange and wonderful world of dictionaries started when he did “the thing that a lot of queer people do growing up, which is you look for words for yourself in the dictionary.” He wasn’t alone in that long, queer tradition: “The queer poet Judy Grahn, when she was a teenager in the ’60s, she looked up ‘lesbian’ in the dictionary,” he reminded me. “And Anne Lister, the Regency-era lesbian gentlewoman, looked up ‘buggery’ in her dictionary when she was in her 20s.”
Why is this such a popular thing to do? “I think it's just a way of thinking that if there's a word for you in the dictionary, then you’re real, you exist in some way," said Turton. "We basically think of dictionaries not only as validating language, but as validating the social world that language represents. If it's in a dictionary, then it's real.”
As a Master’s student at Oxford, he began studying dictionaries. He soon realized that “a fair amount has been written about the social significance of dictionaries with regard to gender and ethnicity, sexism, and racism, but there was very little about sexuality. So that's where I decided to step in.”
What did that research look like? “I just started looking up all the queer words I could think of in as many dictionaries as I could find and building up a database of them,” said Turton. “The useful thing about using dictionaries as your texts is that it's very easy to find what you need because it's alphabetized for you!”
The most “obvious” way that dictionaries changed over time, he said, was how transparent their biases were. “So for example, there's this one bilingual dictionary from 1593 called ‘A Dictionarie French and English,’ by a guy called Claudius Hollyband, in which he translated the French word 'bougre' as 'a buggerer.' And then he added as an aside, 'Burn them all!', like an instruction to the reader, like we ought to go out and do this.”
These biases still exist in modern day dictionaries, but they’re better hidden now. “They tend not to use overtly discriminatory language, but they still enforce ideas about some sexualities being normal, and others being deviations from the norm,” said Turton. For example, the second sense of “sexual intercourse” on merriam-webster.com is “intercourse (such as anal or oral intercourse) that does not involve penetration of the vagina by the penis.” “So queer sex is there, but it's defined by what it is not: as a kind of absence of heterosexuality, rather than being a thing in its own right.”
“If you look up ‘sodomy’ on dictionary.com or lexico.com (which is Oxford University Press’s free online dictionary), they'll tell you explicitly that it means anal or sometimes oral intercourse,” continued Turton. “But they don't bother labeling the word as derogatory or offensive, even though most queer people would probably be shocked if someone asked them in casual conversation if they’d committed sodomy recently.”
But people have been trying to change the dictionary definitions for these words, which is exciting! Right now, it’s little things, like the ‘90s efforts to remove slurs as synonyms for the word “gay” in the Merriam-Webster thesaurus, or the campaign in 2013 against Apple, whose licensed version of the New Oxford American Dictionary had, as one of the definitions of “gay,” the sense meaning “stupid.” “They hadn’t labeled it as derogatory or anything like that,” said Turton. “It was just sitting there, like, ‘this is a normal thing you can say.’ It was only labeled as informal.”
Dictionaries are working on being more inclusive, too! The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has recently started going through their vast collection of entries for sexual terms, trying to update them and remove the homophobia from earlier versions. And that homophobia was pretty blatant: “In the 1930s, they deliberately left out the sexual sense of lesbian because one of the editors thought it was distasteful. So there's this letter in the archive of the other editor complaining and saying, ‘Yeah, lesbianism is a very disagreeable thing, but the word is in regular use, so we have to put it in the dictionary,’ and the other editor was just like ‘Nah, not going in.’”
Still, there’s a long way to go. “For instance, if you go to oed.com today and look up ‘bent’, you will find that one of the senses is ‘of persons: eccentric, perverted, specifically homosexual.’ And that's been unrevised in the OED since 1972. It's wild. And I've pointed this out to them, and they've still not changed it.”
So, aside from petitioning dictionaries to change their definitions, what do we do? Well, as queer history has taught us, if the mainstream tries to bar us from their institutions, we make our own. There’s a rich history of queer dictionaries, from Anne Lister’s 1800s “glossary of sexual terms, which is quite fun,” to the Gay Girl’s Guide, which came out in 1949 “and has got a little, what it calls, a Gayese to English glossary.”
“The preface starts, ‘Girl:’,” he told me. “And then it addresses the reader: ‘This book has been procured for you by your mother, or perhaps one of your sisters. And if you should send it on to other people, but you're not sure if they're gay, you should first cut out certain pages with your sewing scissors.’”
Incredibly, words that we use today show up in these dictionaries! “It’s got things like cruise, dike, girl as a term of address, kai-kai, trick. So these words are a lot older than you might actually think.”
But gay dictionaries exist in the present, too. One that Turton highlighted was “Queer Undefined.” Turton joked, “It's kind of a weird name for a dictionary. It’s basically Urban Dictionary but for queer people.” The idea is that anyone can submit a definition for any word: “they’ll have, you know, twenty-something definitions of bisexual.” After all, he said, “the point of the project was for people to come up with definitions for words that aren't in conventional mainstream dictionaries.”
From definitions of “bougre” in 1593 to “Queer Undefined” in 2022, queerness has always existed, despite a changing vocabulary, in our language. But for too long, others have defined queerness in ways that tear us down. Now, in the digital age, we have a chance to define ourselves.
For more of Turton’s incredible work, keep an eye out for his first book: Before the Word Was Queer: Sexuality and the English Dictionary, 1600–1930, out in 2023 from Cambridge University Press!