Skip to content Skip to navigation

Tommy (as slang for lesbian)

 

(English) It isn’t often that the origins (or at least early roots) of slang terms can be identified unambiguously. By function, slang is often meant to be ambiguous, enabling the user to suggest without being explicit. We can’t know how much earlier the slang Tommy was in use, but an English satiric poem of 1773 “The Adulteress” states “Woman with woman act the Manly part and kiss and press each other to the heart...I know a thousand Tommies ‘mongst the sex.” (The full poem makes it clear that sexual activity is included.)

LHMP entry

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

Rictor Norton has assembled an on-line sourcebook of primary documents relating to homosexuality in 18th century England. (He also has several other pages on related historic topics.) He notes: “All the documents faithfully reproduce the spelling, punctuation, capitalization and italicization of the original sources." As is typical for sites covering homosexuality in general, male-related material vastly overwhelms female-related material (which represents less than 10%).

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.

The introduction begins with a contradiction that inspires the book’s title. In twenty years of correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (who were famous for their close and loving friendship), the two closed letters with phrases in which the words “passionate” or “passionately” figured prominently. And yet a comment by Sarah regarding a somewhat scandalous pamphlet described it as including “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women”. Did the word “passion” have distinct and separate meanings in these two contexts?

Like Gonda’s article on Scott and Charke, Donoghue’s examination of the Anne Damer points out the artificially polarized popular view of affection between women, where very intense romantic friendships were acceptable and even praised so long as they avoided even the rumor of erotic activity. Damer failed to avoid those rumors, but it is unclear whether her refutation of the label of “Sapphist” lay in truth or definition.

Subscribe to Tommy (as slang for lesbian)