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Why are lesbians called dykes?

The origin of the term is obscure, and many theories have been proposed. The OED dates the first recorded use of dike, dyke in 1942, in Berrey and Van den Bark’s American Thesaurus of Slang. But the term bulldyker, from which dyke may be a shortened form, was first printed in 1920s novels connected with the Harlem Renaissance. For example, in the 1928 novel Home to Harlem, Claude McKay wrote: “[Lesbians are] what we calls bulldyker in Harlem. … I don’t understan’ … a bulldyking woman.” (The term is unattested in the OED.) From the context of the novel, the word was considered crude and pejorative at the time. There are several theories concerning the origin of bulldyker. One is that it arose as an abbreviation of morphadike, a dialect variant of hermaphrodite, a common term for homosexuals in the early twentieth century. This in turn may be related to the possible late-nineteenth century use of dyke (meaning ditch) as slang for the vulva. Bull is also a common expression for “masculine” or “aggressive” (as in “bullish”), so bulldyke implied “masculine woman.” According to another theory, bulldyker was a term used for bulls whose purpose it was to impregnate cows. Just as the word “stud” was first used for such a purpose and was later used for sexually promiscuous men or for others in reference to a man who was successful with women, the terms “bulldyker” and “bulldagger” were also taken from their original context and used for the same purpose. A man who was a great lover or successful with women was called a “bulldyker.” “Bulldyking woman” and “bulldyker” became terms for women who looked like a “bulldyker,” a male stud, and were assumed to perform the role, as well.

In Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn proposed that the word bulldyke might have arisen from the name of the Celtic queen Boadicea, but this theory is implausible.

That “Dike” is the name of the ancient Greek goddess of moral justice, and that its use to denote a wall or bank built to contain water or enclose a separate land dates back to the 1st millennium BCE, shows a very long, deeply rooted history of positive meaning applicable to women and to woman’s power, despite the modern day suggested etymology of a misstatement of the Greek term “hermaphrodite.”

1 Comment

  • Apr 15th 201304:04
    by TheTruth

    makes sense to me.

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