Eleanor Margolis: sapphic cynic at large

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Lez Miserable: How to speak Lesbianese

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

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

“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.”