I've been doing research on LGBTQ+ terminology recently and I've come across pretty much the same sentence about the origin of the English derogatory/reclaimed term "dyke":

a source from 1896 lists dyke as slang for "the vulva."

This same sentence is found on the Online Etymology Dictionary, Queer Cafe, Dictionary.com, etc. (most of which cite the Online Etymology Dictionary).

However, the OED's first record referring to lesbian women isn't until 1931. I thought that perhaps the 1896 date on the Online Etymology Dictionary originated from the same source as this passage:

[T]he word appears first in the long forms, bulldiker and bulldyking, both used in the 1920s by American blacks. No African antecedents have been found for the term, however, which leads to the possibility that this is basically just another backcountry, barnyard word, perhaps a combination of BULL and DICK. [Rawson]

Which I was able to find in Rawson's 1989 Wicked Words... But not the mysterious 1896 source...

Was this 1896 source made up? Does it actually exist? Any clues to its whereabouts would be much appreciated!

Thanks so much!

EDIT: I'd like to sincerely apologize for the above language, specifically "Was this 1896 source made up?" After conversing with Mr. Harper via email, as Laurel suggested in the comments, he has been extremely helpful and I do not want anything to reflect negatively on his credibility or the credibility of his site, which is a fantastic resource for etymology. I was under the impression that sources had cited other sources in a sort of phone-tag manner, where none were actually the 1896 source. Mr. Harper has clarified that this is not the case.

EDIT 2: Turns out my university library has access to the non-condensed version of Green's Slang Dictionary, which puts a specific reference as "c. 1930 (ref. to late 19C) N. Kimball Amer. Madam (1981) 19: I had a housekeeper - usually an old dyke." The term 'bull-dyke' is noted even earlier: "1892 Decatur (IL) Daily Rev. 29 July 7(?)/2: ... She went to Blanche Alexander's place, at 101 Custom House place, in search of Belle Watkins, who, she said, had won the affections of Harvey Neal, alias 'Bulldyke.' Bell [sic] heard of her coming and escaped, but as soon as the woman got inside of the house she began firing right and left." However, it still seems like the 1896 source isn't in Green's... (unless the late 19C reference is to the 1896 source).

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    It looks to me like the first place to report this was Etymonline and everywhere else copied it. This might be able to be definitively settled by emailing Douglas Harper, the guy behind the site. His contact info is linked in the copyright notice at the bottom right of the Etymonline site.
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 5:35
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    Green's Slang Dictionary dates bulldyke end of 1800 - [late 19C+] (orig. US) a masculine lesbian; usu. an unpleasant, excessively man-hating one. greensdictofslang.com/entry/x3tzlsa
    – user 66974
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 7:24
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    OED2 has 1949, so they are gradually finding earlier examples they accept.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 22:01
  • 2
    the non-condensed version of Green's might have more info Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 4:40

1 Answer 1


Logical conjecture follows, but please don't downvote - it's just too long for a comment and might spur someone on to the proper citing.

From the Etymonline entry for dyke:

According to "Dictionary of American Slang," a source from 1896 lists dyke as slang for "the vulva," and Farmer & Henley (1893) has "hedge on the dyke" for "the female pubic hair."

I then looked up dike and found:

Old English dic "trench, ditch; an earthwork with a trench; moat, channel for water made by digging," from Proto-Germanic *dikaz (source also of Old Norse diki "ditch, fishpond," Old Frisian dik "dike, mound, dam," Middle Dutch dijc "mound, dam, pool," Dutch dijk "dam," German Deich "embankment"), from PIE root *dheigw- "to pierce; to fix, fasten." The sense evolution would be "to stick (a spade, etc.) in" the ground, thus, "to dig," thus "a hole or other product of digging."

This is the northern variant of the word that in the south of England yielded ditch (n.). At first "an excavation," later applied to the ridge or bank of earth thrown up in excavating a ditch or canal (late 15c.), a sense development paralleled by the cognate words in many languages, though naturally it occurred earlier in Dutch and Frisian. From 1630s specifically as "ridge or bank of earth to prevent lowlands from being flooded." In geology, "vertical fissure in rocks filled with later material which made its way in while molten" (1835).

Sounds rather like the pubis, labia, the vulva, and vaginal penetration. Wouldn't be a huge leap from that to a slang term for female genitalia, and from there, to lesbians.


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