Lez Miserable: How to speak Lesbianese

Modern lesbian vernacular is coy, verging on enigmatic. Eleanor Margolis does her best to guide you through it.

“I just want to be topped by a boy,” says a lesbian friend, as we’re on our way to what we hope will be a debauched night out in Soho.

“You want to be murdered by a young man?” I reply.

When my fellow gays use terms that I should understand but don’t, I like to make it look like I’m playing dumb when, in fact, I’m being dumb.

“No, a boi,” My friend corrects me, as if I can see her mouth form the letter I on the end of the word.

“Yes. Boy.”


The ‘I’ on the end is important – it’s what makes a boy a girl. A boyish girl, probably in a baseball cap. I know this before forcing my exasperated lesbifriend to spell it out for me; it’s the “topping” part that has me scratching my head. As a whole, the phrase seems to hark back to the lesbianism of yore; Radclyffe Hall; poems with discreetly yonic flower imagery; secrecy in general. Polari was once used by gay men as the most literal form of slang (secret language). They may have, many decades ago, referred to a “dilly boy with a bona dish” so that any nosy heteros listening in wouldn’t understand that they were talking about a gigolo with a nice arse. Today, eavesdrop on a conversation between two women in the pulses aisle in Tesco and you may just hear about a “soft-butch gold star with a toaster oven”. That’s Lesbianese for “androgynous lesbian who has never slept with a man, but has slept with a straight woman”. Like Polari, modern lesbian vernacular is coy, verging on enigmatic.

I was recently asked if the word “cake” is lesbian slang. I knew that it was, but I had no idea what for. As a rule: when in doubt, always assume vagina. So that’s what I did. Is having one’s cake and eating it something to do with oral sex? Probably. Lesbians are big foodies, so it’s not surprising when edibles make their way into our sexual slang. I once heard a woman refer to going down on her girlfriend as “having quiche”. Although I’m certain this was a one-off, I was struck by lesbians’ propensity for sexualising things so insipid and vegetarian. As another rule: if an unfamiliar phrase sounds like the title of a Sarah Waters novel, it definitely refers to cunnilingus.

Keeping up with the latest dyke lingo has become a struggle. I really should have been on top of “topping”. As I later discovered, it means penetrating someone – be it with fingers or a strap-on.

The sexual “top and bottom” terminology is actually very old and is used by gay men as well as lesbians. I knew about that, but I’d never heard it used as a verb – I’d heard of being a top, but never of being “topped”. Maybe the nuanced term had passed me by, purely because I’m neither a top nor a bottom. Those sorts of labels are a bit IKEA instruction manual for my taste. Sexually, I’m no Malm chest of drawers. I’m more like a Lego house made by a nine-year-old, with doors in weird places and a boat in the kitchen. I can be assembled in all sorts of ways. Plus, I like it to happen organically. Stream of consciousness sex where things go in places spontaneously. I’ve never gone home with a lady and had her declare herself a top or a bottom, pre-shagging. Things just fall into place.

“So you’re versatile then?” my friend asks as we discuss topping.

“I suppose so…” I reply, furrowing my brow slightly. Having only ever used the word “versatile” to describe myself in job applications, the idea of being sexually versatile feels disturbingly David Brent-esque.

“But do you prefer fucking or being fucked?” the interrogation continues.

“What? It’s all fucking, isn’t it? Having sex is fucking. I like sex. Can’t we just leave it at that?”

“No, fucking means doing the penetrating.”

“So going down on someone doesn’t count as fucking them?”



For instance, "cake" is a piece of lesbian slang. What does it mean, though? Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.