Final Word

Confusing world of sluts, gays and lesbians


The decision of South African Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, to refuse a controversial American anti-gay pastor a visa to enter the country, set me off on an interesting etymological journey.

It made me curious about the origin of some of the modern terms, often used in derogatory ways, to describe those with different sexual orientations.

The obvious term to start with, is the popular collective name for those entering into relationships with people of the same gender: gays – those who are also referred to as homosexuals, especially if they are of the male gender.

The word ‘gay’ in English can be traced to sometime in the 12th century and comes from the Old French word gai, which in turn was probably derived from a Germanic word, although that cannot be stated beyond all doubt.

‘Gay’ started off innocently enough, meaning something like joyful, carefree, full of mirth, or bright and showy.

By the 17th century a shift in meaning had already taken place, edging it into the realm of immorality. The Oxford English Dictionary, by the middle of that century, gave its meaning as being “addicted to pleasures and dissipations. Often euphemistically:  Of loose and immoral life.”

By the 19th century ‘gay’ has moved even further towards the ‘dark side’ of morality to indicate prostitutes and, ironically considering its present day meaning, men who had sexual relations with a string of woman.

While it retained some of the original meanings like ‘carefree’ and ‘joyful’, by the early 20th century another shift in meaning took place and homosexuals were called ‘gay’. By 1955 it was officially recorded as referring to homosexual men, also indicating a shift in moral attitude that moved away from regarding homosexuality as a clinical disorder.

By then homosexual women were already referred to as lesbians – but we will return to that subject shortly.

The slut

One of the worst insults that can nowadays be thrown at a woman is to call her a ‘slut’. According to the Cambridge Dictionary the definition of a ‘slut’ is “a woman who has sexual relationships with a lot of men, without any emotional involvement”.

Originally, however, the term had a quite different and far more positive meaning, as a diary entry by Samuel Pepys in 1664 indicates. He wrote: “Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better.”

It is not easy to pin down the origins of ‘slut’, but some sources guess it is of Germanic origin and related to words meaning ‘dirty’ or ‘untidy’. It was genderless and could refer to man or a woman. In the case of Pepys he was apparently referring to a servant girl.

Lesbian from way back

The term ‘lesbian’ in this general context is probably the one whose roots go back the furthest. It also has the most interesting history.

The term, today referring to a ‘gay woman’, started its journey into the modern vocabulary in 600 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos. The island’s most famous inhabitant ever was the female poet – in itself something extremely rare for the time – Sappho. Literally ‘lesbian’ means someone from Lesbos, as in ‘Italian’.

She wrote many love poems to other women, and sometimes to men. The poems were very erotic and clearly illustrated her infatuation with women. She was scorned for it, but her work had enough merit for Plato of all people to refer to her as the 10th Muse.

It is unclear when the word ‘lesbian’ was first used to describe women who love other women, but the first written usage can be traced back to the 1800s. It came into popular use in the feminist era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Earlier, homosexual woman were often also called ‘sapphic’ or their love defined as ‘sapphistry’.

Unfortunately, not much of Sappho’s original work was saved for posterity, because among other things, over the ages, moralists destroyed, edited or fragmented her work.

Final word

The potential damage that overzealous moralists can cause, is not only illustrated by what happened to Sappho’s work, but should be taken as a lesson by those who wanted to bring pastor Steven Anderson to South Africa,

In a country where thousands of lesbians are raped to ‘cure’ or punish them, Anderson’s views are indeed dangerous. 

Anderson, among other things, said in a 2014 sermon that gay men should be killed in order to have an “AIDS-free world by Christmas”. He also celebrated the June massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured.

In this case Minister Gigaba made the right decision.

by Piet Coetzer

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