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lesbian, n. and adj.

Brit. Hear pronunciation/ˈlɛzbɪən/
U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈlɛzbiən/
Forms:  1500s lesbiane, 1500s lesbien, 1500s lesbyen, 1500s–1700s lesbyan, 1500s– lesbian. Also with capital initial.(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use):  Show frequency band information
Origin: Either (i) a borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element. Or (ii) a borrowing from Greek, combined with an English element. Etymons: Latin Lesbius  , -an suffix; Greek Λέσβιος  , -an suffix.
Etymology: < (a) classical Latin Lesbius of or belonging to Lesbos (especially with reference to Sappho and her poetry, to wine, and to architecture), or its etymon (b) ancient Greek Λέσβιος of or belonging to Lesbos ( < Λέσβος  , the name of the island of Lesbos + -ιος  , suffix forming adjectives) + -an suffix.
In quot. 1550   after Middle French Lesbien (noun) inhabitant of Lesbos (1534 in the passage translated; compare French lesbien (adjective) of Lesbos (1832), lesbienne (noun) homosexual woman (1867)).
With use as noun with reference to wine (see sense A. 1b) compare classical Latin Lesbium  , use as noun (short for Lesbium vinum   Lesbian wine) of neuter of Lesbius  .
In use with reference to female homosexuality (see senses A. 2   and B. 2) with allusion to the poet Sappho of Lesbos (see discussion at Sapphic adj.). The name of the island (and the derivative adjective) were not normally used in this way in Latin or Greek, but compare ancient Greek λεσβιάζειν to imitate Sappho, apparently with punning reference to both poetic style and sexuality (in an isolated instance in Aristophanes).
 A. n.
 1. With capital initial.

 a. A native or inhabitant of the Greek island of Lesbos.

1550   T. Nicolls tr. Thucydides Hist. Peloponnesian War ii. ii. f. xlviiiv   The Lesbyans [Fr. Lesbiens] and the Corcyryans fournyshed shyppes.
1610   J. Healey tr. J. L. Vives in tr. St. Augustine Citie of God vii. xvii. 277   There was another Zenophanes, a lesbian [L. Lesbius], and a Poet.
1658   tr. J. Ussher Ann. World 118   Histiaeus the Milesian..sailed presently with those Lesbians [L. Lesbiis] which were with him to Chios.
1707   T. Hind Hist. Greece iii. 341   The Samians, Chians, Lesbians, and others, who had revolted, having solemnly and religiously sworn to observe the League.
1764   M. Darwall Orig. Poems 66   Oh! cou'd my Sighs in such soft Numbers flow, As tell the slighted Lesbian's deathless Woe.
1853   C. Anthon Man. Greek Lit. 59   Lesches..was a native of Pyrrha, in the island of Lesbos, and in the neighbourhood of Mytilene. Hence he is called a Mytilenean or Lesbian.
1917   E. L. Shields Cults of Lesbos v. 93   Stones from individual graves of heroes have been discovered in Mytilene... These men are Lesbians otherwise unknown to us.
2003   Times 28 Apr. ii. 3   The female inhabitants of the Greek isle of Lesbos...can't all be lesbians, even if they are all Lesbians.

1550—2003(Hide quotations)


 b. Ancient History. Wine from the Greek island of Lesbos; Lesbian wine. Now rare.

1597   Bp. J. King Lect. Ionas i. 1   Aristotle liketh better of the wine of Lesbos, then the wine of Rhodes; he affirmeth both to be good, but the Lesbian the more pleasant.
1665   T. Stanley tr. Ælian Various Hist. xii. xxxi. 236   I will reckon to you the names of Greek Wines much esteemed by the Ancients. One sort they call'd Pramnian,..another Thasian and Lesbian.
1775   E. Barry Observ. Wines Ancients vi. 99   The best Greek Wines, the Chian, Lesbian, Coan, &c. were equally prepared in the same manner.
1844   H. G. Robinson Odes of Horace i. xvii. 69   Here shalt thou quaff..The unintoxicating bowl Of Lesbian.
1846   R. Ford Gatherings from Spain xiv. 163   Manzanilla..may be compared to the ancient Lesbian, which Horace quaffed so plentifully in the cool shade, and then described as never doing harm.
1982   Hesperia 55 255   Athenaeus quotes Alexis..as saying that there was ‘not another wine pleasanter to drink’ than Lesbian.

1597—1982(Hide quotations)


 2. A woman who engages in sexual activity with other women; a woman who is sexually or romantically attracted (esp. wholly or largely) to other women; a homosexual woman.Now the usual sense of the noun.

1732   W. King Toast ii. 67/2   This little Woman gave Myra more Pleasure than all the rest of her Lovers and Mistresses. She was therefore dignified with the Title of Chief of the Tribades or Lesbians.
1895   T. C. Minor tr. E. Dupouy in Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic 5 Oct. 382/1   Erethism of the organs induced among Lesbians, at a given moment, a shameless abandon of their bodies.
1925   A. Huxley Let. 21 Apr. (1969) 246   After a third-rate provincial town, colonized by English sodomites and middle-aged Lesbians, which is, after all, what Florence is, a genuine metropolis will be lively.
1940   ‘G. Orwell’ Inside Whale 132   Gruff-voiced Lesbians in corduroy breeches..could walk along the streets without attracting a glance.
1947   E. Taylor View of Harbour x. 170   ‘I think I look like a Lesbian,’ Beth said doubtfully.
1965   New Statesman 9 Apr. 570/2   Why does it matter so much to them whether lesbians use a dildo or not?
1978   Cincinnati Mag. June 37/3   I wanna thank the local Gays and the Lesbians and the anti-Nazis for stopping in. You were all beautiful, beautiful people.
1983   A. Walker In Search of our Mothers' Gardens 282   Until recently there has been almost nothing written by or about the black lesbian in American literature—a void signifying that the black lesbian was a nonentity.
1983   K. Payne Between Ourselves 302   I came out as a lesbian and became more committed in my writing and radical politics.
2013   Church Times 12 Apr. 6/3   Only 21 per cent of those surveyed believe that churches are welcoming to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

1732—2013(Hide quotations)

 B. adj.

 1. With capital initial. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the Greek island of Lesbos.Recorded earliest in Lesbian rule n. at Compounds 1   (cf. quot. 1869).

1559   W. Bavand tr. J. Ferrarius Common Weale iii. vii. f. 50   Therfore Aristotle compareth it, to the Lesbiane rule [L. Lesbiae normae], pliable to all measures.
1565   A. Nowell Reproufe f. 87v   The scriptures..are..as a certaine rule of leade of the Lesbian building, the which it is not harde to apply wherto ye will.
1589   A. Fleming tr. Virgil Georgiks ii. 21 in A. Fleming tr. Virgil Bucoliks   The grapes which Lesbian vintager doth crop from Methym vine.
1609   D. Price Spring sig. D3   Lesbian vines be more honored by Aristole then the vines of Rhodes.
1657   G. Thornley tr. Longus Daphnis & Chloe i. 12   They..had..bin at charge to teach them to read a ballad in the Lesbian Tongue.
1706   N. Rowe Ulysses ii. i. 945   The Chian and the Lesbian Grape.
1728   E. Chambers Cycl. at Cymatium   Lesbian Cymatium, according to Vitruvius, is what we otherwise call Talon.
1757   Lit. Mag. Sept. 423/2   Mr. Gray..has addressed himself to the Æolian lyre, in the same manner that the author just quoted talks of the Lesbian lyre.
1829   E. Griffith et al. Cuvier's Animal Kingdom VII. 126   Lesbian Bunting.
1846   G. Grote Hist. Greece II. ii. vii. 570   The Lesbian harper Terpander.
1869   R. Williams tr. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics v. x. 176   For that which is in itself irregular requires an irregular rule, exactly as the Lesbian walls of uneven masonry require a leaden rule by which to measure their actual length. For, much as such a rule is not inflexible, but adapts itself to the configuration of the stones, so does the special enactment adapt itself to each particular case.
1913   J. I. Manatt Aegean Days (1914) xxxv. 301   I suppose no corner of the world need be searched in vain for an Englishman; but of all unlikely places one would look for him last in a remote Lesbian village.
1946   Jewish Q. Rev. 37 169   If a connection between the Hebrew seer and the Lesbian poet can be established, new vistas are opened here.
1990   Trans. Amer. Philol. Assoc. 120 207   The offer of harmless Lesbian wine in the following line..recalls the Pramnian wine with which Circe turned men into beasts.
2003   Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 145 6   No Lesbian metre admits a succession of three short syllables.

1559—2003(Hide quotations)

 2. Now the usual sense of the adjective.

 a. Characterized by sexual activity between women, or sexual or romantic attraction between women; involving or relating to lesbians or lesbianism.

1732   W. King Toast ii. 64/2   A famous Courtesan of Athens, who first practis'd and taught in that City Sappho's Manner and the Lesbian Gambols.
1808   Edinb. Med. & Surg. Jrnl. 4 477   The disease seldom proceeds so far except in women who have indulged in Sapphic and Lesbian habits.
1883   Alienist & Neurologist 4 89   An incident occurred in 1876 to interrupt the quiet monotony of this Lesbian love.
1921   L. Slominski Erroneous Human Laws & Social Evils iv. 41   Often the fear of infection by the opposite sex leads them into Lesbian practices.
1956   C. Wilson Outsider iii. 63   There is bisexuality too. (Pablo suggests a sexual orgy for three: himself, Harry and Maria; and Maria and Hermine have Lesbian relations.)
1974   Ms July 118/1   Testimony from a group of bright articulate lesbians covering: lesbian sexuality, problems of lesbian mothers..and the lesbian lifestyle.
2006   N. S. Dhaliwal Tourism x. 214   Her five-year lesbian relationship had just ended, and she was looking for something casual.

1732—2006(Hide quotations)


 b. Of a woman: that is a lesbian; engaging in sexual activity with other women; sexually or romantically attracted (esp. wholly or largely) to other women.

?1770   Female Barbers (new ed.) 7   One, more hirsute than the rest, The Lesbian Damsels thus address'd.
1889   A. Barrère Argot & Slang (new ed.) 83/2   Chipette,..Lesbian woman, that is, one with unnatural passions.
1892   Med. Rev. (St. Louis) 27 Aug. 164/2   We cannot avoid believing that..if she had been taken in hand early by those in authority..she would not have become a Lesbian lover or a murderess.
1931   R. Campbell Georgiad i. 13   No Lesbian governess had got the start of him.
1933   H. Walpole Vanessa iv. 781   She disliked people to take it for granted that unless she was Lesbian she was uninteresting.
1972   Jrnl. Social Psychol. 87 52   50 adult female respondents who would define themselves..as being Lesbian or homosexual or both.
1973   Daily Tel. 5 Apr. 9/8   For the first time at a National Union of Students conference homosexual and lesbian students spoke out openly.
2013   Radio Times 9 Nov. (South/West ed.) 5/2   Feckless sperm donor..meets up with his children's lesbian parents..in a smart, sharp and bone-dry comedy.

?1770—2013(Hide quotations)



 C1. In sense B. 1.

  Lesbian rule   n. a flexible (lead) ruler which can be bent to fit what is being measured; (figurative) something, esp. a legal principle, which adapts to fit the circumstances.Cf. Aristotle's description in Nicomachean Ethics (1137b30) of such a rule: see quot. 1869 at sense B. 1.  [After post-classical Latin Lesbia norma (1556 in the passage translated in quot. 1559), the more common Lesbia regula (a1536 in Erasmus), and their model ancient Greek Λεσβία οἰκοδομία.]

1559   W. Bavand tr. J. Ferrarius Common Weale iii. vii. f. 50   Therfore Aristotle compareth it, to the Lesbiane rule [L. Lesbiae normae], pliable to all measures.
1605   T. Tymme tr. J. Du Chesne Pract. Chymicall & Hermeticall Physicke ii. ii. 111   The composition and wonderful nature thereof is, as it were, a certaine example and Lesbian rule [L. regula Lesbia] of our worke.
a1628   J. Preston New Covenant (1630) 233   Thou goest not by a straight rule, but by a leaden Lesbian rule.
1711   W. King tr. G. Naudé Polit. Considerations Refin'd Politicks v. 188   It [sc. artificial, politic Justice] is soft and pliant enough to accommodate itself as the Lesbian rule [Fr. la regle Lesbienne] to human and popular weakness.
1828   A. Herbert Nimrod I. iv. 279   If the parallelogram called jugerum be enclosed by a rope, or any other Lesbian rule, that rope must be bent at the angle B, to make the two sides AB and BC; but if the flexible rule be again straightened out, it will give the line ABC.
1856   Christian Remembrancer Oct. 504   The Lesbian rule, which had been unduly stretched in one direction, has suddenly collapsed in another.
2010   Oxf. Jrnl. Legal Stud. 30 99   It is necessary to be flexible, to adopt a lesbian rule, and rather than conforming the visual figures to the words, judgment can endeavour instead to adapt the words to the images that surround and subtend them.

1559—2010(Hide quotations)


  lesbian square   n. rare after 17th cent. a measuring square which adapts to fit what is being measured (chiefly in figurative contexts); see Lesbian rule n.

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. C3   Equitie..is that Lesbian square, that building fit, Plies to the worke, not forc'th the worke to it.
1608   J. Sylvester tr. G. de S. Du Bartas Deuine Weekes & Wks. (new ed.) ii. iv. 72   Another, leueld by the Lesbian Squire, Deep vnder ground (for the Foundation) ioynes Wel-polisht Marble.
1613   R. N. Christians Manna i. iv. 24   They measure their faith by the Lesbian Square of their Sense.
1681   Democritus Ridens No. 3. (single sheet) (verso)/2   He is made as crooked as a Lesbian Squire.
2005   M. Fortier Culture of Equity iv. 112   Equity uses the lesbian square so that it ‘Plies to the worke’.

1603—2005(Hide quotations)

 C2. In sense B. 2.

  lesbian feminism   n. advocacy of lesbianism as a political choice designed to counter the traditional dominance of men over women; the movement associated with this.

1972   Motive 32 No. 1. 1   Lesbian feminism is the ideology that unites us.
1973   Off our Backs Jan. 6/1   Perhaps all this is an indication of the trend away from the strict separatist lesbian-feminism seen in D.C.
1992   M. Cruishank Gay & Lesbian Liberation Movement 153   Of the many institutions which encouraged the growth of lesbian feminism in the 1970s and 1980s..none was more important that the National Women's Studies Association.
2010   N.Y. Times 21 Sept. b12/1   In the early 1970s she [sc. Jill Johnston] began championing the cause of lesbian feminism.

1972—2010(Hide quotations)


  lesbian feminist   n. and adj.  (a) n. a supporter of lesbian feminism;  (b) adj. reflecting or promoting lesbian feminism; of or relating to lesbian feminists.

1971   Arizona Republic 11 Mar. 93/2   Many liberationists..say the lesbian feminist is about as representative of women's liberation as Black Panthers are of Negroes, or Weathermen of middle Americans.
1972   Off our Backs Jan. 5/3   The Furies, a lesbian-feminist newspaper.
1979   D. G. Wolf Lesbian Community ii. 24   The present study is limited to the emerging lesbian-feminist community in San Francisco.
1991   L. Faderman Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers ix. 218   The utopian world that lesbian-feminists envisioned was based largely on socialist ideals and reflected the background many of them had had in the New Left.
2015   Guardian (Nexis) 12 Jan. (Books section)   A lesbian-feminist criticism of women's roles seems to hover in the background.

1971—2015(Hide quotations)


  lesbian marriage   n. a (long-term) domestic partnership between two women; (in later use) esp. a formal or symbolic marriage bond or ceremony contracted between two women; marriage between two women.In quot. 1939   with reference to Frank Wedekind's 1911 play Franziska in which the eponymous heroine marries a woman while disguised as a man.

1939   J. Bithell Mod. German Lit. iii. 63   The heroine makes a pact with a theatrical agent that she will drain the cup of joy to the dregs, which she does, with the inclusion of a Lesbian marriage.
1965   Times 18 June 15/3   How would audiences a few years ago have responded to the second strand of the action—a lesbian marriage handled in complete earnest.
1986   S. Churcher N.Y. Confidential ix. 212   Peeches Three, a crowded Seventy-second Street lesbian spot,..hosted such intimate events as a lesbian marriage.
2017   Toronto Star (Nexis) 9 Jan. e1   Juno Rinaldi..plays Frankie, whose lesbian marriage is shaken by her postpartum depression.
2017   South China Morning Post (Nexis) 8 June 5   Her girlfriend at the time dumped her because she believed they had no future since lesbian marriage was not legal on the mainland.

1939—2017(Hide quotations)




  ˈlesbianism   n. sexual or romantic attraction between women; sexual activity between women; (also) lesbian nature or identity.

1870   A. J. Munby Diary 2 May in D. Hudson Munby (1972) 283   Swinburne..expressed a horror of sodomy..and an actual admiration of Lesbianism, being unable..to see that that is equally loathsome.
1895   A. Douglas Let. in H. M. Hyde Trials Oscar Wilde (1948) 360   Thus in England there are no laws against ‘Lesbianism’ or intercourse of an erotic character between women, and yet there are several women in London whose friendship with other women does carry a taint and a suspicion, simply because these women are obviously ‘sapphic’ in their loves.
1897   H. Ellis & J. A. Symonds Sexual Inversion iv. 82   Casanova remarked that the women of Provence are especially inclined to Lesbianism.
1971   C. Wolff Love between Women iii. 40   No theory has so far been evolved which deals exclusively with lesbianism.
1997   Village Voice (N.Y.) 29 Apr. 12/4   Even if Ellen were using her lesbianism to grab an audience, shouldn't she be commended for turning honesty into a selling point?
2004   Diva Mar. 12/3   Women's prisons have such a potent aura of lesbianism about them.

1870—2004(Hide quotations)


This entry has been updated (OED Third Edition, June 2018; most recently modified version published online December 2022).

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