I read an article on the BBC whose title caught my interest. It's called "The invention of heterosexuality". It's quite a lengthy article, and goes through what it claims is the very short history of the word "heterosexual", various interpretations of early philosophers and researchers (von Krafft-Ebing, Freud, Kinsey), and many other things.

What I found most interesting were both that the word originally was defined in dictionaries as a pathology.

The 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” More than two decades later, in 1923, Merriam Webster’s dictionary similarly defined it as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”

So I checked the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the word results in:

1 a : of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward the opposite sex b : of, relating to, or involving sexual intercourse between individuals of opposite sex

and then as to its first usage:

First Known Use: 1892 in the meaning defined at sense 1a

This is in complete contradiction with the claim in the article as to the 1923 definition.

I was in fact surprised that both "heterosexual" and "homosexual" are of quite recent coinage.

From Wikipedia I got this:

The term "heterosexual" was first published in 1892 in C.G. Chaddock's translation of Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis". The noun came into use from the early 1920s, but did not enter common use until the 1960s. The colloquial shortening "hetero" is attested from 1933. The abstract noun "heterosexuality" is first recorded in 1900.[5] The word "heterosexual" was first listed in Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary as a medical term for "morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex"; however, in 1934 in their Second Edition Unabridged it is defined as a "manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality".[6]

Apart from the sentence that the term didn't become popular until the 1960s, the information in Wikipedia seems to square with that in the BBC article. However caveat lector: The citation marked [6] is the same source as cited repetitively in the BBC article, an essay with a title identical to the BBC's article's, by Jonathan Ned Katz, published in 1990 in the Socialist Review magazine. I've read through Ned Katz's information and the BBC article writer seems to have just repeated everything written by this Katz person.

I'm not very good at hunting down dictionary editions and quotations from specific time periods, so I was wondering if anyone could shed light on this. Basically that the word "heterosexual" didn't lose its "morbid" connotation until about 1934.

3 Answers 3


I couldn't find the 1923 MW dictionary, but I did find this tweet from MW which confirms what it said:

In 1923, our entry for 'heterosexuality' defined it as "morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex."

I was, however, able to find C.G. Chaddock's translation of Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis" (1892):

Dr. Moll writes concerning this impulse in hetero-sexual individuals [Ger. bei Heterosexualen]: ‘The passion for handkerchiefs may go so far that the man is entirely under their control.’

The object of post-hypnotic suggestion is to remove the impulse to masturbation and homosexual feelings and impulses, and to encourage heterosexual [Ger. heterosexualer] feelings with a sense of virility.

(Brackets from OED.)

This is actually just the normal sense of the word (in contrast to "homosexual").

I was also able to find an isolated 1892 citation for homosexual as a noun:

The Urning, if he is permitted to indulge his instinct, obtains the same relief & feeling of refreshment as the heterosexual does.
John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality

Again, "heterosexual" here is the normal definition, contrasting with "Urning" which means "homosexual".

  • Thanks for your help. I'm interesting in knowing whether this is true: "It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today". Is there a way of looking up old definitions of different dictionaries from editions of around early 1900s?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 5:35
  • @Zebrafish unfortunately we don’t seem to have a list of dictionaries for that timeframe on the big meta post. You should be able to find some yourself by searching for the name and year of specific dictionaries. That’s how I found stuff like this in the past
    – Laurel
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 6:09

The OED has examples (the Chaddock references) of the current usage from 1892. Whilst it does have references to a slightly different scientific use (sense 2), it has no reference to any sense or usage suggesting "abnormal or perverted appetite for sexual attraction" - per the OP's Dorland quotation.

  1. a. Sexually or romantically attracted to, or engaging in sexual activity with, people of the opposite sex.

1892 C. G. Chaddock tr. R. von Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis iii. 174 (note) Dr. Moll writes concerning this impulse in hetero-sexual individuals [Ger. bei Heterosexualen]: ‘The passion for handkerchiefs may go so far that the man is entirely under their control.’

1927 Scots Observer 1 Oct. 15/3 A certain proportion of people..are as instinctively homosexual as the normal individual is heterosexual.

1961 Encounter May 75 The relationships between homophiles seem to approximate very closely to the relationships between adult heterosexual men and women.

1990 D. Pallone & A. Steinberg Behind Mask xii. 195 Both gay and heterosexual men visit bars for many different reasons.

2014 Herald Bull. (Anderson, Indiana) 2 Mar. d2/1 First of all, let me say that I am unquestionably, without a doubt, entirely heterosexual.

  • I'm not sure if you misunderstood, as you've given a definition of "homosexual", not "heterosexual". However there's one quote there from 1927: "as instinctively homosexual as the normal individual is heterosexual" definitely refutes the claim of that before 1934 "heterosexual" meant some sort of morbidity or pathology. I bet there are even earlier examples. Thank you. The whole article just seemed like some postmodern "There are no real categories, everything's just socially constructed" type of recitation of Katz's arguments from his book. But that's my personal issue.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 7:28
  • @Zebrafish I have no idea what you mean when you say that I've "given a definition of homosexual not heterosexual". ???
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 7:38
  • Haha, sorry, when I read "opposite sex" I got the opposite idea. Hey, it's a postpostmodern world, you don't know what's what. Thanks.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 7:44
  • That's actually really interesting you found that definition from 1892, completely discredits the article author and Mr Ned Katz. My suspicions were raised as other things there I found dubious.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 7:50

On the narrow question of how Merriam-Webster dictionaries defined the term heterosexuality during the period 1890–1936, I can offer some relevant information. Webster's New International Dictionary, as originally printed in 1909, did not contain an entry for heterosexuality. However, my printing of this dictionary, from 1928, contains the following entry in the "Addenda" section:

heterosexuality, n. Med. Morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; — opposed to homosexuality (which see, in the Dictionary). — heterosexual, a.

The main Webster's New International Dictionary (from 1909) has this entry for homosexuality:

homosexuality, n. Med. Morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex. — homosexual, a.

So as of 1928—and according to the Merriam-Webster tweet cited in Laurel's answer, since 1923—the unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary of record presented heterosexuality and homosexuality as medical bookend terms of morbid sexual passion. My 1898 edition of Webster's International Dictionary (originally published in 1890, and the predecessor of the New International Dictionary of 1909) doesn't contain an entry for either word.

Despite the evident inclusion of heterosexuality in the unabridged Webster's of 1928, my 1928 copy of the shorter Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, third edition (originally published in 1916), doesn't mention it or homosexuality at all in the main text of the dictionary or in the addenda.

My 1934 copy of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, fourth edition (originally published in 1931) introduces heterosexuality in the "New Words" (that is, addenda) section:

heterosexuality, n. Psychol. Sexual interest or inclination directed to the opposite sex. — heterosexual, a.

But this edition is mum on the subject of homosexuality. Finally, in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, fifth edition (1936) both terms appear, although curiously out of parallel:

heterosexual, adj. 1. Characterized by or pertaining to sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; — opp. to homosexual. 2. Biol. Of or pertaining to different sexes. — n. A heterosexual individual. — heterosexuality, n.


homosexuality, n. Eroticism for one of the same sex. — homosexual, adj & n.

The even-handedness of 1928's "morbid sexual passion" all around has given way to 1936's (presumably nonmorbid) "sexual passion" in one case and "eroticism" in the other. There is also no explanation for why the adjective form heterosexual leads that entry while the noun form homosexuality leads its counterpart. Still, the MW definition of heterosexual doesn't include the word "normal," which is remarkably nonjudgmental for the time.

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