Making use of new resources in LGBT history

Making use of new resources in LGBT history

New resources are constantly becoming available to the OED lexicographer: resources which inevitably make us think, ‘Oh, if only we’d had that when we were editing the entry for X, it might have made it even better!’ Fortunately, online publication means that it’s a straightforward task to go back and re-edit the entry to take account of the new information. Here we’d like to report on how we did this with some new resources which the Bodleian Library—whose array of online resources is an enormous boon to us in our work—made available to mark LGBT History Month.

In fact we have done a lot of work recently on vocabulary relating to sexuality and gender, as well as some targeted work in a non-online archive (which yielded a valuable antedating of the modern use of the word gay). But the availability of three new online archives made us wonder what new evidence we could uncover by returning to some of the entries which we’ve already revised. Two of the new resources—LGBT Magazine Archive and LGBT Life—allow us to search a large number of periodicals produced by and for various LGBT communities, many of which have traditionally not been collected by libraries; a third, Archives of Sexuality and Gender, contains further material of this type and much else besides.

And the exercise paid dividends. We managed to antedate over 30 terms, from butch to daddy to handkerchief code to LGB to muscle mary to non-scene to safer sex to twinkie; sometimes by as little as a month—which can still be significant in the history of a word—and in one or two cases by over a decade.

The ‘champion’ antedating is for to butch up, which we had previously traced back to 1987 in its intransitive sense ‘to change one’s appearance or behaviour so as to appear more traditionally or stereotypically masculine’ (there’s also an earlier related transitive sense, most commonly found as to butch it up); the new evidence is from a 1969 issue of the physique magazine Grecian Guild Pictorial, in which a model ‘butches up’ for the camera. This is an interesting piece of evidence, as it may suggest an earlier strand of meaning—perhaps ‘to strike a masculine pose’—and further research may be needed before the antedating can be added.

Other antedatings are more straightforward. Our entry for gaydar—an imagined ability to recognize other gay people—previously traced the word to 1988; we now know that it was used in a San Francisco magazine published by the Gay Atheists League of America as early as 1986. Our earliest evidence for the word out, in the sense ‘openly acknowledging one’s homosexuality or bisexuality’, has been pushed back four years, from 1977 to this 1973 quotation from a magazine produced in Saskatoon (Canada): ‘One is aware of a feeling that Murphy, although he is an “out” gay, has some feelings of insecurity and inferiority to overcome.’ The longer expression out of the closet, from which the one-word form out derives, was formerly recorded as dating back to 1970; we now have some interesting evidence from a 1965 issue of the pioneering Los Angeles transgender publication Transvestia: ‘Give the “guy” his due and don’t forget him in the struggle to let “her” out of the closet.’

There have been some interesting successes with compounds of the word gay itself. Both gay lib and gay pride were previously known only from 1970 onwards; in a small but significant shift, both have now been antedated to 1969, the year of Stonewall. Another compound, gay-friendly, might have been expected to be traceable well before 1989, the date of our previous earliest example; and indeed, now that the new resources have given us access to the kind of publication where it might have first appeared, we have been able to trace it back to a 1977 advertisement for the ‘West Side Discussion Group’ in New York, described as ‘a gay friendly meeting place’. The important compound gay marriage had already been traced back to 1959, but we now have a 1957 example, from a newsletter published in Denver (Colorado) by the Mattachine Society, a pioneering gay rights group.

These are just a selection of the antedatings found so far. And the OED will continue to make use of every resource that becomes available to explore and document the history of every word in the language used by, and about LGBT people: just as we will strive to do the same for every other domain of the English lexicon.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.