The term dyke is a slang noun meaning lesbian; it is also a slang adjective describing things associated with lesbianism. It originated as a derogatory label for a masculine or butch woman; while this usage still exists, the term dyke has been reappropriated to an extent as a positive word implying assertiveness and toughness, or simply as a neutral synonym for lesbian.
The origin of the term is obscure, and many theories have been proposed. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first recorded use of dike, dyke in 1942, in Berrey and Van den Bark's American Thesaurus of Slang.
The term bulldyker, from which dyke may have been shortened, first appeared in 1920s novels connected with the Harlem Renaissance. For example, in the 1928 novel Home to Harlem, Claude McKay wrote: "[Lesbians are] what we calls bulldyker in Harlem. ... I don't understan' ... a bulldyking woman." (The term is unattested in the OED.) From the context in the novel, the word was considered crude and pejorative at the time.
One theory for the origin of bulldyker is that it was an abbreviation of morphadike, a dialect variant of hermaphrodite, commonly used for homosexuals in the early twentieth century. This in turn may be related to the late-19th-century slang use of dyke (meaning ditch) for the vulva. Bull is also a common expression for "masculine" and "aggressive" (as in bullish), and bulldyke implied a "masculine woman". Another theory claims that bulldyker was a term used for bulls who were used to impregnate cows. The word stud was extended for a sexually promiscuous man and a man successful with women. The terms bulldyker and bulldagger were also taken from their original context and used for the same purpose. A man who was a great lover was called a bulldyker. Bulldyking woman and bulldyker became terms for women who resembled a bulldyker, a male stud, and who were assumed to perform the role.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the term was reclaimed by many lesbians. Examples in the culture include the comic strip "Dykes to Watch out For" and the traditional Dykes on Bikes that lead pride parades.
Matters came to a head when the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied lesbian motorcycle group Dykes on Bikes a trademark for its name, on the grounds that "dyke" was an offensive word. In 2005, after a prolonged court battle involving testimony on the word's changing role in the lesbian community, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board permitted the group to register its name.
"Dyke Marches" have become a popular Pride event nationwide. They are generally non-commercial, often in sharp contrast to corporate-sponsored pride events, and are usually inclusive of lesbian, bi, and trans women.
The term will sometimes have an adjective added to it, as in:
- Bulldyke or Bull dyke or Bulldiker or Bulldiger (also, earlier, Bulldagger)– more likely to present as butch
- Diesel dyke– more likely to present as butch who most likely drives a truck
- Baby dyke– a young, immature or recently out lesbian. Sometimes used in a pejorative sense within the LGBT community to refer to a lesbian who attempts to appear butch unsuccessfully.
- Femme dyke– a lesbian who presents in an (often stylized) traditionally feminine way.
- Lipstick Dyke variation on the pop-culture term "lipstick lesbian". Also known as a "doily dyke."
- Stealth Dyke lesbian who can pass for straight, or does not fit the 'dyke' stereotype.
- Trans dyke Transsexual or Transgender woman who romantically and/or sexually prefers females.
- Bear dyke A lesbian of especially large build and/or physical prowess.
A dyke bar is a term used to describe any bar or club in which lesbians often attend, but can also indicate a "tougher" establishment (in terms of the patrons or environment). As with the stand-alone word "dyke," the term is considered not only slang, but a potential slur when used by non-LGBT persons.
- Krantz, Susan E. (1995). "Reconsidering the Etymology of Bulldike". American Speech 70 (2): 217–221.
- Spears, Richard A. (1985). "American Speech". American Speech 60 (4): 318–327. JSTOR 454909.
- Dynes, Wayne R. (1991). The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Garland Publishing. pp. 335–336.
- "dike, dyke, n.3." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford UP. 4 Apr. 2000
- According to www.etymonline.com. The Oxford English Dictionary records no such interpretation.
- Herbst, Phillip (2001). Wimmim, Wimps & Wallflowers: an encyclopaedic dictionary of gender and sexual orientation bias. Intercultural Press. p. 332. ISBN 978-1-877864-80-3.
- Anten, Todd (2006), "Self-Disparaging Trademarks and Social Change: Factoring the Reappropriation of Slurs into Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act" (PDF), Columbia Law Review 106: 338, retrieved 2007-07-12
- Baby Dyke
- Knadler, Stephen P. (1963), "Sweetback Style: Wallace Thurman and a Queer Harlem Renaissance" MFS Modern Fiction Studies - Volume 48, Number 4, Winter 2002, pp. 899-936
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- Etymology of dyke on the Online Etymology Dictionary