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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.