Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 199 – What’s the Difference between Lesbian and Sapphic?

Saturday, April 17, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 199 – What’s the Difference between Lesbian and Sapphic? - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/04/17 - listen here)


What is the distinction between lesbian and sapphic?

At some point I should systematically track where my random podcast ideas come from. Today’s show was touched off by a facebook discussion about how people feel about identifying books as lesbian versus sapphic versus women-loving-women versus queer, or some other way of indicating the book’s content.

Well, you know that I’m always going to go for the linguistic angle. Some people in the discussion appeared to be approaching the question as: you have this group of woman-loving-women books here, how do you label them? It treats the choice simply as personal preference. Others felt that picking one term over another was a political choice—that it highlighted or backgrounded some aspect of identity.

I come at this question, not only as a linguist studying how people use different terms to communicate different things, but as a podcaster and blogger who wants to respect how authors and readers engage with the identities of their fictional characters.

Now, given the history and associations of the words, it’s a reasonable question to ask “do the words lesbian and sapphic actually mean different things?” I mean, they both came to be used to talk about women who love women from the same original source context. So how is it even possible for them to have different meanings?

The short answer is that the meanings of words evolve over time and can drift away from their origins. They can acquire more specific meanings, or more general ones. They can narrow in meaning to be applied to only a subset of what they started out referring to. Let’s look at some examples that have nothing to do with sexuality.

The Latin word lex meaning “law” gave rise to the Latin word legalis, “having to do with the law”. And legalis was taken into English as legal. But when legalis was taken into French, it became loial and shifted in meaning from something like “law-abiding, legitimate”, to focusing more specifically on “doing what the law requires” and from there to “faithful, showing allegiance”, which is the meaning it had when borrowed into English. So we have legal and loyal which ought to be identical in meaning, based on their origins, and yet they ended up with different meanings.

Another really fun pair of words in English is shirt and skirt. Completely different, right? But if we go back to the ancestor language of the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, they both trace back to something like *skurtjon meaning “a short garment”. The word came down into English directly as shirt, originally meaning any sort of basic short garment for the body, a tunic if you will. But English had this habit of borrowing words from all the various people who settled on the island of Britain, and the Norse speaking people who did that were calling this garment a skirt. The two words diverged in application: shirt meaning a garment for the upper body and skirt one for the lower body.

So even with words that start from the exact same root, we may evolve words with different sounds and different meanings. And the words lesbian and sapphic don’t even start from the same root word. They took the opposite route, going from having different meanings to having similar ones. But their history is even more interesting than that.


Our story starts, of course, with Sappho of Lesbos, the famous early Greek poet. Sappho is a personal name, and although names often have literal meanings, any original sense isn’t relevant to our discussion—as well as being lost to time. Lesbos is also a proper name—that of an island in the Mediterranean Sea, quite close to Turkey but belonging culturally and politically to Greece. The name Lesbos may mean “a forested place” but, again, that origin isn’t relevant to today’s discussion.

What is relevant is that a long time ago a woman named Sappho lived on an island named Lesbos and she became famous for writing really, really good poems that included talking about the women she loved. She was significant enough that all sorts of words derived from both Sappho and Lesbos came into use with associated meanings. And we’re going to trace some of the paths those words traveled along the way to find out how we get to our current question.

Linguistic Differences

One of the reasons that words derived from Sappho and words derived from Lesbos ended up with different meanings is that they started out by referencing different things, and they continued to pick up meanings due to those different references.

For example, Sappho was famous for her poetry. The island of Lesbos, though I’m sure it was home to other poets as well, wasn’t specifically known for a certain type of poetry. So when people named a particular poetic meter after one of the ones that Sappho used, they named it after her—the Sapphic stanza—not after Lesbos the place.

Similarly, when people coyly referenced the sorts of relationships suggested between Sappho and the women she addressed poems to, they spoke of “the women of Lesbos, the Lesbian women” because there were clearly more people involved than just Sappho.

Lesbian has also always meant “pertaining to the island of Lesbos”. And if Lesbos were a more prominent and more talked-about place, it’s possible that the adjective lesbian wouldn’t have picked up a specialized sexual meaning, simply because people would commonly encounter it in other contexts. But in the timeline that we inhabit, it’s possible for someone to be familiar with the sexual meaning of lesbian and not realize that it’s named after a real place.

So we have Sappho, a name. And we have sapphic, an adjective meaning “related in some way to Sappho.” We have Lesbos, a name. And we have lesbian, an adjective meaning “related in some way to Lesbos.” But we have some other word forms derived from these roots as well.

Just as an artist is someone who does things related to art, and a scientist is someone who does things related to science, a sapphist is someone who does things associated with Sappho. Similarly, words ending in -ism are created to mean “a practice, system, or philosophy of the root word.” A feminist practices feminism. A capitalist is part of the system of capitalism. A vegetarian follows vegetarianism. And a sapphist can be thought of as practicing sapphism.

Now, I said that lesbian is an adjective—which is how it started out. But adjectives that identify groups of people often develop into nouns that refer to those people. Someone with Christian beliefs is a Christian. Someone from a Scandinavian country is a Scandinavian. And the ambiguity between lesbian as an adjective and lesbian as a noun is one of the complications of modern identity terminology. Can one speak of “lesbian acts” without implying that the people involved are lesbians? Can we say that a 17th century poet wrote “lesbian poetry” if we don’t think she had a lesbian identity? Whatever that means?

But at any rate, to complete our set of words, someone who does lesbian things—however defined—can be said to be practicing lesbianism.

But all that is a bare sketch of the grammatical relationships of the words. What did they mean? How did people use them? And how did that end up with the set of words derived from Sappho and the set of words derived from Lesbos having different meanings?

Chronology of Usage

Part of the answer is that various words associated with women who love women sort of leap-frogged over each other in popularity, with one becoming common, then falling out of favor, then another becoming popular. And there are other words besides the ones deriving from Sappho of Lesbos that participated in this game of leap-frog, but I’m looking specifically at these two in comparison.

In the earliest examples—we’re talking the first millennium of the common era—words taken from Lesbos show up with a sexual connotation, although the sexuality can’t be pinned down as exclusively between women. In classical Roman texts, a “woman from Lesbos” could be a dogwhistle for various types of non-normative sex. There’s a 10th century Greek example using lesbiai “women from Lesbos” as equivalent to a couple other nouns meaning women who have sex with women.

But it isn’t until we get the Renaissance revival of Sappho’s works that we start seeing both our root words showing up more commonly in this context. (People certainly talked about women who loved women earlier than that, they just used a different set of words.)

We get a good snapshot of how people were using this vocabulary in the late 16th century from the French writer Brantôme, who had a fascination with the image of women having sex together. He brings Sappho into the discussion, but only by name, not using nouns or adjectives derived from her name. He talks of how women who have sex together are imitating “that learned poet Sappho of Lesbos” and how she was “a very high mistress in this art.”

But when Brantôme refers to other women who practice the art, he uses Sappho’s attributes but not her name. Sappho is Sappho de Lesbos “Sappho from Lesbos” or sometimes Sappho lesbienne “the Lesbian” using a form of the word that could be either adjective or noun, and in this context is ambiguous between her birthplace and her sexuality. Her fellow countrywomen who imitate her sexuality are dames lesbiennes “lesbian women”, but again there is ambiguity because the women in the passage are both inhabitants of Lesbos—femmes de Lesbos—and women who have sex with women. Then, when Brantôme turns his story away from ancient Greece and talks about women “in many regions and lands…in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places”, here when he speaks of dames lesbiennes there is no longer ambiguity. The word lesbian is now separated from having geographic meaning and can only be interpreted as having a sexual meaning. In this passage, lesbienne functions as an adjective, “lesbian women”, but later in the text he refers to ces Lesbiennes “these lesbians” treating it grammatically as a noun.

Because of one man’s obsession with what other people are doing in bed, we have a detailed picture of how the vocabulary had evolved by the 16th century. Sappho is an icon, but lesbian is a word that can be applied to other women.

We don’t have as detailed a picture of English usage in the 16th century. Translations of classical works refer to Sappho’s love for “lesbian lasses” but as in the French examples, this can be ambiguous when the women involved literally live on the island of Lesbos. But English texts of this era tend to use other words entirely (such as tribade) and don’t seem to have established the same tradition of using lesbian as a general identity term at this time.

In the languages that did use forms of lesbian, it’s hard to tell from the available glimpses and fragments whether the sexual use of lesbian as an adjective was popular long before it was used as a noun for a category of person. Given how geographic or ethnic terms are often used in parallel as both adjective and noun, it’s a reasonable guess that the two uses have always been closely bound.

But the situation is different with words derived from Sappho. We don’t start with a context where someone can be “a Sappho” meaning a type of person. Or rather, we do find this use applied to other female poets, but in a more individual sense rather than as a category label. What we do have as a starting place for more general use is an adjective meaning “related to Sappho”, as in the poetic meter “Sapphic stanza.”

There are also some experiments in adapting the name of Sappho more generally that didn’t take hold. In the early 18th century, William King’s poem “The Sapphoan” envisions something of a club or society by that name, filled with women having sex with each other.

By the 18th century, the adjective sapphic was fairly common in English referring to women’s same-sex relations. A woman might be described as being sapphic or as having sapphic passions. But unlike the word lesbian we need to modify sapphic to get a noun that could identify a person. The earliest identified example of sapphist with this meaning occurs in the late 18th century, though it’s likely to have been in used for a while at that point.

But did sapphist and lesbian mean the same thing to people who used them at this time? That’s difficult to know, particularly because we don’t often find the same person using both words in a context where we could distinguish meaning. In the 18th century, the sexual sense of lesbian was fairly rare in English, with the scurrilous poetry by William King being a rare example. What we seem to find, rather than a distinction of meaning, is a succession of use.

Across the 19th century, lesbian starts showing up with increasing frequency while sapphic becomes less common and sapphist starts sounding quaint and old-fashioned.

What was going on in parallel with this shift? The rise of French decadent literature—where lesbienne was the popular term—with a later boost from medical literature (which leaned toward lesbian rather than sapphist when it wasn’t using other terminology entirely). By the early 20th century, there was a sense that sapphist was something of a rarefied literary term, perhaps used in upper class circles, but fallen out of use in popular literature.

There’s a fascinating tool available from Google that can compare the rates of usage of different words or names appearing in the books Google has scanned. It’s not always reliable, but as a blunt instrument it can show general trends. I haven’t tried using it to compare the words under consideration before the 20th century because earlier than that the sexual senses tend to get overwhelmed by non-sexual ones.

In the first couple decades of the 20th century, both lesbian and sapphic are declining in use with the former being somewhat more common. But starting around 1920, lesbian begins to rise in frequency while sapphic keeps declining. And when we get to the end of WWII, lesbian begins to completely dominate the semantic space. Sapphic and sapphist are still there, trudging along, but far under the radar, while lesbian has rocketed to frequent usage. But then something interesting happens. Around about 1980, sapphic starts making a little bit of a comeback. And even sapphist picks up a little in usage after having functionally disappeared.

And that brings us up to the present day.

Shades of Meaning in the World of Books

How have lesbian and sapphic come to have different shades of meaning when applied to books? The biggest reason is that sapphic simply wasn’t in common use any more. Oh, it was still around as an archaic term. But when the big explosion of discourse around sexuality identities happened in the later 20th century--when people were looking for words to describe themselves--the word that women who loved women were already using most commonly was lesbian. So lesbian was the word that got fixed and defined in people’s minds and is the word that people pay most attention to the boundaries of. It’s the word that people feel either includes or excludes them. And that inclusion or exclusion centers around the identities people claim, not the features they might have in common with other identities.

Sapphic escaped having that weight of definitional baggage primarily by virtue of being unpopular. And yet it was still there in the language, carrying the resonances of women loving women with a more neutral flavor. That made it an attractive choice when people wanted an inclusive term that covered attraction by a female-identified person for another female-identified person without implying that their attraction was necessarily exclusive to women—the meaning that lesbian had acquired.

I honestly don’t know when people started applying the term sapphic to books to indicate a wider spectrum of identities in the characters. It was something that burbled up into my awareness during the period that I’ve been doing this podcast. And my understanding of the use and meaning of the term within book circles has largely come from watching how other people used it and what books they applied it to. I’ve also done a lot of listening to people explaining why the term feels comfortable to them. It certainly solves the problem of potentially misidentifying a character or a plot as lesbian if neither the character nor the author identify with the exclusive sense of that term.

If I put on my linguist’s hat, I think part of that comfort stems from the fact that sapphic is an adjective. It describes things without categorizing them, without labeling them. And while one can argue that the adjective sense of lesbian could be understood the same way–that describing a book as a lesbian romance isn’t a claim that the people in the romance identify as lesbians—there’s a flinch reflex among many bisexual women who feel the word doesn’t belong to them and excludes them.

Words have meanings, but meanings evolve. In the long run, words mean what we use them to mean. Lesbian has had a lot of meanings across the centuries, sapphic rather fewer, but both have changed, expanded, contracted, shifted. And they may shift again. The one thing that language never does is stand still.

Show Notes

A linguistic tour through the history of words derived from Sappho of Lesbos, and why a book might be a sapphic book while not being a lesbian book.

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: