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.”

“B-O-I.”

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?”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle