Why “Sapphic” Is Back In Style

If you frequent the queer meme-verse and social media circles, you may have noticed that the word “sapphic” is having a moment. But what is driving the seeming renewed popularity of this adjective formed from the name of Sappho, our most iconic Greek lady-loving poet? When Autostraddle EIC Dr. Carmen Phillips asked for an explainer recently, my language-nerd ears perked up: a challenge at the confluence of queerness and etymology, two of my favourite things! I started becoming aware of this trend maybe two or three years ago, and I had a hunch about what linguistic niche it was trying to fill. But anecdotal language impressions are notoriously unreliable, so I decided to do some investigation. What does “sapphic” mean these days and is it actually having a resurgence? And if so, why?

An example of a sapphic meme in the wild

Down in Sapphistory

In order to see where “sapphic” is headed, it helps first to look back at its history. The adjective arose in English around 1500 to describe Sappho’s poetic metre and style. The mainstream modern sense referring to attraction between women started catching on in the late 1800s, after the discovery of some of Sappho’s lost papyrus manuscripts that tickled the fancy of the Parisian literati. Since “bisexual” wasn’t commonly used or recognized until the 1950s, it’s not clear whether this new sense of “sapphic” originally included all women who loved women, or only those who exclusively loved women. But certainly by the mid-to-late 20th century, lowercase-s “sapphic” was essentially a synonym for “lesbian”. This is still reflected in most major dictionary definitions, and even here on Autostraddle in a “More Than Words” article from 2012:

No one really uses the word “sapphic” anymore. I understand why – it has an air of exoticization about it, and its roots, which seem at first glance so straightforward, are pretty twisted when you trace them back. The best-known legend about Sappho has her pining so hard for a man she throws herself off a cliff, which tangles the common modern connotation of “sapphic” to mean “lesbian” and not more broadly women’s attraction to other women.

Nine years on, let’s take a look at what has changed.

(Fair warning, there’s a metric fuckton of nerdery ahead, so if you just want to know the answer to the main questions already, feel free to skip all of this and jump down to “TL;DR” at the end!)

Is There a “Sapphic” Comeback?

The answer is – kind of? There’s definitely been an uptick – the Google Books Ngram Viewer (a search engine that charts word frequencies in Google’s text corpora) shows a notable spike in frequency around 2014, but whether counts as a comeback is debatable. It’s also worth taking into account that “sapphic” has been nowhere near as frequent as “lesbian” at any point in the last 40 years. This search engine only accounts for books, though, which tend to lag behind when it comes to linguistic trends that originate in more informal settings.

If there is a bigger trend happening, it’s likely happening on the internet, but researching and quantifying informal word usage across the whole web is beyond my armchair-linguist capabilities. The NOW corpus at english-corpora.org does show an increase in “sapphic” frequency in online news articles from 2017 onward, with a particularly big spike in 2020. There is unfortunately no similar database that would account for social media usage.

In the absence of substantial hard data regarding online usage, I did what any rigorous and credible researcher would do — I asked my queer internet friends to fill out and distribute a survey for me.

How Are (Some) People Using “Sapphic” These Days?

Many disclaimers are needed before we do a deep dive into the survey results: 1) I am not a statistician; 2) the sample size is fairly small; and 3) it is composed of people connected to some degree with my social spheres on WhatsApp, Discord, and Facebook. These results are really only a snapshot of how some people in some circles use the word — they may hint at possible explanations for its renewed popularity, but should not be taken as definitive.

Let’s start by taking a look at the demographics (note that respondents could tick more than one box for the first two questions, so the results don’t total 100%). Of the 112 people who responded:

  • Most identified as women (79.5%) and/or gender(s) that do not fit the binary (39.4%). Four people (3.6%) identified as men.
  • Most identified as queer (53.6%), followed by lesbian (44.6%), bisexual (39.3%), gay (16.1%) pansexual (13.4%), and straight (1.8%). Additionally, 13.4% of respondents identified as asexual, demisexual, and/or demi-romantic.
  • Most were under 39 years old (83.1%), split evenly between twentysomethings and thirtysomethings (plus one person under 20). 10.7% were in their 40s, and 6.3% were over 50.

My aim was to find out in what contexts people use the word “sapphic,” what they mean by it, and what they think other people mean. I also wanted to find out whether those answers varied by demographic category. Here are some of the outcomes! (I’m only going to report results for the lowercase-s “sapphic” definitions here.)

For the question “In what contexts do you use the word ‘sapphic’?”, the most popular reply, at 60.7%, indicated that people use “sapphic” mainly to describe events or behaviours, such as “a sapphic relationship” or “sapphic movies”. This surpassed its use both as a descriptor or identity for people (36.6%) and for groups (34.8%).

To find out what survey respondents primarily mean by the term, I next asked, “When you use the word ‘sapphic’, what is your MOST FREQUENT intended meaning?” This is where things get interesting! While as recently as a decade ago, “sapphic” was pretty much a direct synonym for “lesbian”, this definition was the least common choice at only 4.5%. A solid majority (60.8%) of respondents said they most frequently use “sapphic” as an inclusive umbrella term, encompassing either all women attracted to women, or also including nonbinary identities. The “synonym for lesbian” definition did show up as a more common choice in the next question (“Please indicate any additional meanings of ‘sapphic’ that you use less often”), but still less than half of respondents (42.6%) said they use it in this way.

When asked, “When you see or hear other people using the word ‘sapphic’, what do you interpret them to mean?”, almost three-quarters (74.1%) of respondents indicated that they see it used as an umbrella term for all women attracted to women. They interpret the nonbinary-inclusive definition less often (46.4%) — slightly less than the “synonym for lesbian” definition (52.7%).

Notably, almost a quarter of respondents (24.1%) indicated that they never use the word “sapphic”, and 8% said they never hear or see anyone using it. This suggests that even if it is somewhat back in style, it isn’t exactly universal, even within the queer community.

Stand Under Our Umbrella

When I compared demographic groups’ responses, there were clear contrasts in how different age groups and genders approach the two umbrella definitions.

Alt text: Image of a chart titled "Primary use of umbrella terms by age" comparing survey responses for people age 39 and under to those 40 and over.

Younger people (39 and under) chose the nonbinary-inclusive umbrella definition three times more often than those 40 and over. The older group was more likely to use the women-only umbrella definition, other definitions, or not use the word “sapphic” at all.

Alt text: Image of a chart titled "Primary use of umbrella terms by gender" comparing survey responses for nonbinary, mixed or other genders to binary-only genders

People whose identity included genders outside of the binary were more likely to use the word “sapphic”, and much more likely to use the nonbinary-inclusive umbrella definition, than people who indicated only binary “woman” or “man” as their gender.

As a compelling side note, several people commented that they felt the word had various connotations or restricted uses (e.g. “memes,” “mostly used when typing,” “ironically or dramatically,” “playful,” “romantic,” “dreamy,” “derogatory, ‘soft’ and desexualized,” “archaic,” “tongue in cheek,” “cutesy”). Most, but not all, of the people who made these kinds of associations did not see it as a nonbinary-inclusive term.

TL;DR — Wherein I Finally Get To the Point

To sum up, it seems that there is indeed somewhat of a “sapphic” resurgence, at least amongst some groups of younger queer women and nonbinary people on the internet, who are using it mainly as an umbrella term.

There are other such words already out there, so why this one specifically — what language gap is it filling?

My hunch is that “sapphic” as an umbrella term has a couple of things going for it. First, it hits just the right balance of inclusive and exclusive, without resorting to constructions like “non-men” that centre on the excluded party. It positions an expansive concept — love and attraction amongst a profusion of diverse genders and sexualities — as the standard within our community, instead of as an outlier within the wider patriarchal society.

Second, it can potentially avoid some of the ambiguity of other labels. “Queer” is a broad and subversive umbrella term, but it can also refer to queer cis men. “Bisexual” and “pansexual” are often considered mutually exclusive with “lesbian”. Furthermore, while “lesbian” increasingly encompasses some nonbinary identities, it is still widely assumed to default to “women attracted to women” (and, unfortunately, its adoption by transphobes means that it doesn’t always clearly signal inclusion of trans women). In short, there is no other term or phrase that can transmit the concept of “all queer women, and some nonbinary people, who are attracted to other women and/or some nonbinary people” in such an efficient way as “sapphic” can.

Some of the comments on the survey add important perspectives to this conversation:

“I mostly come across it when used to describe relationships where one of the parts is bisexual in order not to invisibilize them by calling the relationship ‘lesbian’.”

“There’s an interesting nuance to the word sapphic that implies it’s inclusive of non-binary people who *opt-in* to that label as a description of their relationship to gender and sexuality. I.e., I know some non-binary people who are very much Sapphic + use Sapphic to describe themselves and are active in sapphic communities, and I also know some non-binary people who feel misgendered by being lumped into a group associated with womanhood as a gender.”

“As a nonbinary lesbian, I generally use sapphic as an umbrella term when I can’t be arsed to explain to someone outside of the community just how, exactly, I can be a nonbinary lesbian.”

“Sapphic” clearly isn’t yet free of all ambiguity itself — but as someone who gets a thrill out of learning how words evolve, I’m rather excited to see what happens to it over the next ten years. It’s not every day that you get to witness this particular kind of linguistic phenomenon occurring: an established, even antiquated word gaining new versatility in a different context.

On a personal note, I like the idea of “sapphic” as a nonbinary-friendly umbrella term; it fits my own nebulous identities well, so I’m rooting for that particular definition to continue its upward trajectory.

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Chandra McCann (she or they) lives on unceded Syilx territory in British Columbia, Canada, and works as a Fundamental English instructor helping adults upgrade their literacy skills.

Chandra has written 5 articles for us.

85 Comments

  1. Super interestig, thanks!

    I’m neutral on sapphic. If that’s where we’re going, cool. But I’m always concerned about saying we’re gonna let TERFs and ahistorical understandings tell us ‘lesbian’ isn’t inclusive enough.

    • this is an important consideration.

      i also kind of think that terfs will follow wherever rational people go and try to co-opt whatever is being done/used in an effort to be or appear relevant. if that’s true, then furthering the effort to increase inclusivity seems like a good way to counter them.

      • Yeah, imo it’s worth tackling the problem from multiple angles – we can keep using “lesbian”, “bi” etc. in very clearly trans and nonbinary-inclusive contexts to drown out the TERFs and other gatekeepers, and also use words like “sapphic” when we want a quick way to signal inclusivity in contexts where it might not otherwise be clear.

  2. I’ve definitely noticed this trend online, and from what I saw on tumblr it was coupled with an increase in pressure for nonbinary folks to identify as “man” or “woman” “aligned.” I may just be a grumpy genderqueer queer person here, but I’ve always felt weird about nonbinary genders being lumped in with women in terms of attraction in ways they aren’t with men. It feels, to me, like it feeds into the idea of nonbinary people as Women Lite or Basically Women, and even more so when you get into definitions of sapphic and/or lesbian that center on “non men” as a realm of people to be attracted to. It feels like having a whole-ass nonbinary gender isn’t enough to separate you from being seen as basically a woman, but a drop of man in your identity poisons the well. What about people who are bigender? Demigender? Genderfluid? Otherwise partially or somewhat men? How much of a man in percentage do you get to be before you’re not allowed in these spaces?
    It’s complicated to create language for attraction to nonbinary folks but grouping “women + nonbinary people” into a word that historically only acknowledges the women part just doesn’t do it for me.
    I will say that I do really like sapphic as a tool against bi-erasure, as noted in this article.

    • I hear you. I appreciated the comment from the survey that “sapphic” is like an opt-in term for nonbinary people who feel comfortable with it. It was also interesting to note that nonbinary people seem to be on the leading edge of embracing it as an umbrella term. But of course as with any label, it won’t fit for everyone, and that should definitely be respected.

    • super here for the grumpy & the nice way of expressing concern.

      i suppose some of us try to understand people who are fluid through a binary lens because it’s familiar, and by extension knowbale and/or safe. but i don’t get the need to exclude other folks who have at least the same, if not a greater experience of marginalization.

    • Hi! I don’t think it’s a case of younger people rejecting those other words – there were many respondents who self-identified as lesbian or bisexual, and who also use “sapphic” (for example, in contexts where they are including not only themselves but others with different labels). Erasure is a real problem for sure, but I think this is more like people trying to find an easier and more specific way to say LGBTQ.

    • Seems to me that it’s less to replace “Lesbian”, and more to cover more ground than “Lesbian” does. I’m bisexual, my friend is Lesbian, if I were to refer to us as a group I might say “a couple of Sapphics hanging out ✨”, but I’d hardly stop calling her a Lesbian.

    • As a woman who happens to be trans, nonbinary, and bi, I’ve been told by plenty of people that I don’t get to call myself lesbian, even though (1) I’m a woman, and (2) I’ve only ever had relationships with women. I’m content to use ‘Sapphic’, partially because it describes me, and partially because other folks who use the term don’t generally say I’m erasing them by my own existence in their spaces. ✌

  3. I do love this article and especially its insight into the word Sapphic, I love learning queer history.

    Personally, as a nonbinary Lesbian, I’m fine with using sapphic or WLW for my identity but I’m also really fine with calling myself a Trixic since it includes my nonbinary identity and Lesbian identity.

    Love how Sapphic, is used to counter against Bi-erasure since that’s pretty prevalent in the queer community.

  4. I find it odd to position ‘sapphic’ as more inclusive of nb/trans people than ‘queer’ because it turns on the identity of a single individual who is almost always positioned as a cisgendered woman regardless of her sexual attraction to others.

    • I wouldn’t say it’s more inclusive than queer – if anything maybe less so, because it includes only a subset of nonbinary people (i.e. those who are comfortable being aligned with or adjacent to womanhood). So for example, for me, even though “queer” is usually the box I tick, that identity can include attraction to men, which is not true for me. So “sapphic” is more specific.

      Re. Sappho’s identity, this would be a case of a word’s etymology growing beyond its origins and filling a gap in the language. It’s a good question regarding how that came to be the case, given that Sappho is positioned as cis, but it’s worth pointing out that even “lesbian”, which also turns on Sappho’s identity, may or may not exactly match how she existed in the world.

      • I must be misunderstanding there, my impression was that Sapphic could include bisexual women, if not their relationships to cis men? Or is it a term that only applies to relationships, not people?

        To Corvidae’s point, I doubt that TERFs came up with this word given that it’s being used by so many trans and trans-inclusive people, unless it was stolen from them.

        • It for sure includes bisexual women, but with a focus on the woman-loving (or sapphic-aligned-nonbinary-loving) aspect of their identity. It did seem to be more popular as a word for relationships, broader communities, etc. rather than individuals, but it can also be used as an identity term for those who embrace it. I could imagine someone using a label like “sapphic bisexual” if they’re bisexual but lean more strongly towards women, for example.

          • Thanks for your reply, Chandra, I have learned a lot from this and it will probably save me from embarrassing myself in front of a zoomer- always a noble goal.

  5. I appreciate this article as someone who was also asking for it in the comments on Carmen’s editor statement! I go back and forth on whether I dislike ‘sapphic’, I think ultimately I’m fine with people using what they feel best fits with their vibe as long as it’s not TERF-y. Personally, I’ve always found ‘queer’ gets the job done and is sufficiently confusing to straight people. I’ll definitely choose ‘sapphic’ over ‘wlw’ any day though, ‘wlw’ feels wildly exclusionary of nonbinary people or falls into the trap mentioned in a previous comment of NB people being “women lite”.

  6. Sapphic as an adjective is fine but when it’s used as a noun, it bothers me. I’m not sure why. I prefer it to wlw though which is just too much of a mouthful.

    Sapphic as an umbrella term is interesting. I’ve seen some people posit that because of the pseudohistorical claim that Sappho was married to a man (which was actually a historical joke. Her supposed husband’s name translates to Cock of Man island).

    I’ve always felt very ambiguous to lesbian and sapphic because it’s so… white basically lol. I usually just use ‘gay woman’.

  7. i have found the growing use of sapphic uncomfortable because i feel like it is a response to the recent unwillingness to say ‘queer’. while sapphic is cute, i frankly will cling to ‘queer’ and ‘queer women’ as covering the exact same ground without letting anyone tell me that ‘queer’ shouldn’t be used.

  8. A key aspect of the current interest in “sapphic” is that language adapts to the things people want to express. Because (some) people felt that “lesbian” had come to mean “a woman exclusively interested in women” (which is a narrowing of the historic sense, when you look across the last millennium), there was a semantic desire for some way to indicate “a woman sexually interested in women, but not necessarily exclusively”. It’s a different nuance than “bisexual”, since it that technically omits women with exclusive interest in women. It’s also a more specific meaning than “queer” which includes other axes of identity than romantic/sexual orientation.

    By the way, the use of “sapphic” in English in a sexual orientation sense can be identified throughout the 1700s, well before the late 1800s usage mentioned in this article. (The author may have been working from the OED, or from sources relying on the OED, without realizing that the compilers of the OED deliberately excluded many examples of vocabulary relating to female homosexuality.) I’m not sure if external links are allowed in comments, or I’d point to a couple of podcasts I’ve done on the topic both of the linguistic history of “sapphic” and on the linguistic history of vocabulary relating to women’s same-sex relations in general.

    • Thanks for this added context. I’d be very interested in listening to your podcasts on the subject! External links are allowed (you just might get caught in a spam filter if there’s more than one or two).

      Fwiw, the late-1800s citation is for when that usage became more widespread, not when it was first used that way. My references for that are etymonline.com (which draws from multiple sources including the OED) and the earlier linked Autostraddle article – it looks like Cara got her info there from a book called Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present by Neil Miller. I didn’t delve too deply into the history myself because that was already covered in that previous article, but I’d love to hear more about these earlier uses!

      • The main problem with sources that rely on the OED for the chronology and popularity of vocabulary for lesbianism is that the OED editors deliberately suppressed inclusion of that vocabulary. There’s a great article examining the deficiencies of the OED in this regard (https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/oed-editions/oed-online/re-launched/case-study-terms-lesbianism/). And I’ve seen time and again that general works on queer history repeat that defective information, often simply citing each other as a source. It’s an error that’s very difficult to root out at this point. And that’s setting aside the issue that there were plenty of other terms for female same-sex relations in English before “lesbian” came into popularity. So it’s frustrating to see people repeat the myth that “women didn’t have any language to talk about this before the late 19th century” (which I’ve seen frequently, for example, in discussions of Anne Lister).

        Since you asked, my podcast The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast can be found here: https://lesbianhistoricmotif.podbean.com/

        It’s an outgrowth of a blogging project that reviews and summarizes historic research relevant to the writing of sapphic historical fiction.

        • I came here to say this – particularly the part about the expansive use of lesbian in prev centuries (I think also people don’t realise quite how early “lesbian” was being used in something resembling its modern sense) – and then saw that you’d done so perfectly. Thanks!

        • i understood the OP to mean that her historical review used the information that was available to the common understanding as it related to the progressive use the term sapphic is currently enjoying. specifically that it was available, not so much that it was authoritatively representative.

          i so appreciate the point that we would be better served by correcting/improving the understanding that is commonly available (thanks for your work on this! looking forward to checking it out) and if the response to this piece is any indication, there’s certainly interest. autostraddle seems an ideal venue to broaden that discourse. hoping for a follow up post, or even a series!

  9. Fun article. I find it amusing to note however your retrograde use of the word “amongst”. Embracing linguistic change in English seemingly requires one to stop ending words with the morphemeless archaic “-st”.

  10. and I personally have come across sapphic mainly in the online and meme sphere. It also denotes romanticism as well as an inclusivity towards bisexual women. I do not feel it’s nonbinary-inclusive, though. But I love it, especially as a poetry and Sappho enthusiast. it has this historical ring to it, as if queer women are reclaiming their history.

    • It isn’t AAVE, it comes from a body of research from (primarily) Black Gay men in the 1990s who studied AIDS/HIV education in Black communities. A lot of folks in the Black community — men and women — didn’t like the term gay. A lot still don’t, because the term suggested a particular aesthetic, way of being, and behaviour that was embodied by the dominant culture (i.e., white people). My former mentor (RIP) was involved in this research, and he and a few other Black gay male scholars were the first I heard use the term mlm or msm (men who have sex with men) when referring to Black same gender loving communities.

      I think we should be very careful about saying something is “cultural appropriation” and whether it can be widely used by everyone, especially when we’re dealing with descriptions that originated in academia, the least open, accepting, and egalitarian society there is.

    • Hey there! Thanks for reading. I’m a GenX queer too, and I fully support everyone continuing to use whatever words they’re most comfortable with. I’m going to reply about the TERF issue in a separate comment, because I think it’s important to address.

    • what i like about this is the defensive position against terfs. like, really tired of that bs, but so many of us publicly rejecting them, even to the point of potential adjacency, is a bit of an upside.

      also, *waving at you and Chandra in Pac-Man*

  11. I want to address the perception of a connection with TERFs that a couple of people have brought up now. I’m not sure if these are simply individual impressions, or if they’re grounded in something more substantial that I should be aware of. I definitely have had no impression of any such connection myself – if I did, I would not have pursued this article. A high percentage of the survey respondents who use “sapphic” also identify as queer, bisexual and/or nonbinary (all identities that get attacked by TERFs). Anecdotally, many of the people I know personally who embrace it are trans women or nonbinary people. The meme accounts where I’ve seen it used like the one linked above, and sites like r/actuallesbians on Reddit, are all explicitly trans-affirming spaces. If anything, “sapphic” seems to me like a word that would be antithetical to the TERF worldview, due to its expansive, inclusive and nuanced nature. But if I’m mistaken about that I would definitely like to be clued in!

    • Hi Chandra, I appreciate you engaging with me on this, especially since you’re an age mate!

      The use of the term sapphic rubs me the wrong way because it reminds me of the gatekeeping I experienced over the word queer back in my days as a baby queer, and because I also identified as bisexual at the time.

      Sapphic, based on what you’ve written above, is intended to be more inclusive and more expansive than lesbian, or even “wlw” which I’ve seen in a lot of Gen Z spaces. I’m all for inclusivity, and making sure that people can find words that work for them and help them build community.

      And yet.

      Sappho was a lesbian poet. I know it is possible to split hairs on that designation, and anytime a person tries to view a person from antiquity through a modern lens, that interpretation is rife for being misconstrued. I feel like that’s what is happening with the adoption of sapphic.

      And also, you haven’t intimated this, but I also can’t seem to shake the spectre of the discourse from younger LGBTQ2S+ folks around the word queer being “a slur” and the (seemingly endless) conversations about making queer spaces more “family friendly”, i.e., completely devoid of anything and anyone that doesn’t fall within a very narrow range of respectability. My age is showing, and I freely admit that, but I am having a *very* difficult time with this discourse, which is most certainly a me problem, not a community or language problem.

      So I’ll demur and say that if folks considerably younger than me want to adopt this as a form of identity and as a way of building community, then it’s incumbent upon me to sit with my discomfort and try to get to the root of why these shifts in language bother me so much, and what it says about the erasure of older queers and our experiences. I’m not quite ready to be put out to pasture yet.

      • Also, I feel some type of way about a reddit community called “actual lesbians”. I don’t have any experience with that community, but words convey meanings that maybe the originators didn’t intend, and “actual lesbians” sounds like something TERFs use as a rallying cry.

        • whoa. this so much, fucking awesome. i realize i have looked forward to your comments before, but this time, just thank you.

          might younguns be reclaiming sapphist the same way we reclaimed queer? i didn’t realize some young folks were objecting, but perhaps that’s just the natural tension between preceding and succeeding generations? Like, we value ‘queer’ as hard fought through the slings and arrows of intolerance that we even existed; but having advanced the cause enough that most people believe in acceptance now, young folks are turning some of their focus to internal inequities in the community, and are thus looking for new language to express their values, but doing in a the similar tack of reclamation. maybe?

          i took ‘actual lesbians’ to be not creeps that pretend and catfish/troll. but i can how it could be taken either way. sigh, can assholes just please stop. we don’t don’t have time for this.

          • YUP, it’s entirely possible! That’s why I have so many caveats in my comments about being An Old and how that’s frustrating for me. I am listening, even though I may not appear to be.

          • how much you are listening is so very evident. there’s a lot of stuff with the youngs that i don’t get intuitively, but find myself mostly enjoying the thought provocation.

            what i’ve been thinking about for the last hour is how i thought i knew about sitting in my discomfort, but i really need to examine that after reading what you wrote. thank you.

        • Thankfully the intention behind the subreddit name wasn’t exclusionary, or at least, not as far as I know. When I used to visit that space pretty frequently, the origin story I always heard was that it got named that because “r/lesbians” was already taken… as a space for lesbian pornography made for a male audience. So the intent was to say it’s a space for and by the actual community.

        • Hi Cecily, thanks very much for taking the time to respond and expand on your thoughts – I appreciate hearing your point of view.

          I’ll respond more fully when I get the chance (in the middle of dinner and cat wrangling atm), but just quickly, the actuallesbians thing was chosen because r/lesbians was taken over as basically a porn subreddit for straight men. I’m not active there but I do read it occasionally, and it has a flourishing community of trans lesbians who post and comment frequently and are met with lots of upvotes and support. I totally get why it can seem like a questionable name, but in this case it thankfully has nothing to do with transphobes.

          • Hi again! So I want to first echo msanon in saying that I’m really glad people are being vigilant about things like potential transphobia, queer erasure, and the unfortunate new wave of conformism. For context, several important people in my life, including my wife, are trans, so these are topics I take very seriously, and if I had any misgivings at all during my research that this word was being snuck into the discourse by unsavoury types, I would have backed away slowly.

            Re the point about Sappho and lesbianism, what’s interesting is that it seems there’s a lot of evidence that even the word “lesbian” was historically more inclusive than it became in recent decades – this is something I’ve only started to learn about myself, so I can’t speak on it with much authority, but I think part of the appeal of “sapphic” as an inclusive term for younger generations may well be because “lesbian” got co-opted and restricted from its original inclusive sense.

            I’ve heard about the “queer is a slur” discourse happening, but I personally haven’t witnessed it in the groups I drew my survey base from or the pages where I started to notice “sapphic” being used. The two words seem instead to be filling different niches in the language, rather than one replacing the other.

            I definitely hear you on the frustrating lack of awareness around the experiences of queers from older generations, just in general in our communities. I didn’t come out until pretty late in life so I think I missed a lot of it myself, but even I have started to see certain issues cycle around again as if nobody learned anything from them the first time around. I for one would love to hear more from perspectives like yours – I bet the editors would welcome a pitch about it too, if I may put a bug in your ear.

        • I’m with you on the term ‘sapphic’ feeling a little…more ‘clean’ than queer or something. I don’t like it and it’s taken me until this article to figure out why. I think it’s the ‘soft and desexualized’ feeling. For some people though, that might feel more comfortable, and I guess that’s fine. But yeah, with the ‘q-slur’ discourse bs it gives me pause.

          Just also wanted to let you know, the origin of the name ‘actual lesbians’ for that subreddit is because r/lesbians was (still is? idk for sure) a male-dominated/male gaze-y porn subreddit (ugh), so they created r/actuallesbians to be a safe space for queer women. It’s been a long time since I used reddit, but they’ve tried to be an increasingly inclusive space from what I’ve seen.

          • Oops, my internet was wonky and I missed some of the above replies! Looks like someone has the subreddit name thing covered lol

          • “I’m with you on the term ‘sapphic’ feeling a little…more ‘clean’ than queer or something. I don’t like it and it’s taken me until this article to figure out why. I think it’s the ‘soft and desexualized’ feeling.”

            That is EXACTLY my problem with it!!!

      • fwiw, I’m vaguely Online and the people who I see using “sapphic” are not TERFs — I agree with Chandra’s TLDR hypothesis that it’s popular because it’s inclusive but narrower/more specific than “queer,” which can include men.

        Also, not to get too deep into the q-slur discourse, but there are LGBT people who find the word “queer” to be deeply distressing and painful, and I think there has to be a balance between reclaiming the word and supporting those who don’t want to reclaim the word. For that reason, I support having other umbrella terms in addition to “queer” — to support people who find “queer” painful or triggering.

  12. Thank you Chandra for this!! Since Carmen posed this question I have also been really curious about this. Autostraddle could perhaps include a question or two about this in their next reader survey to increase the data pool if they can! My thoughts: I still think queer is the ultimate catch-all term, and as a nonbinary person I tend to use queer above all else both to describe myself and my community, especially in my circle of nonbinary folks who were both amab and afab. But also…I am definitely in a sapphic relationship atm! Though I tend use it most often to refer to media+movies as opposed to people. I call my own circle queer. TBQH I don’t want to cultivate a sapphic-exclusive community (I would hesitate including myself into a sapphic exclusive space, even though I call my relationship sapphic…the nuance!!), I want to be a part of a queer community.

  13. @chandra – i was surprised that nobody mentioned the ultimate classic book on lesian sex: Sapphistry by Pat(rick) Califia. This was the most controversial book of the 80s, very much ahead of its time. I remember the days when there were near fistfights over the question if it should be sold in feminist bookshops. Which didn’t exactly calm down when the author transitioned lol.

  14. I wrote an article, years ago, on a now defunct queer website (not that one, a less famous one), about how we as a community should start using sapphic more, since it felt like we were missing a single, jaunty word to describe relationships/communities of lesbian and bisexual women. I am delighted to find out the internet has caught up with me, and also made it even more useful by having it encompass wider range of gender identity. I will sit here sipping my whiskey, enjoying the one time I was ahead the curve and feeling like a queer elder.

  15. I think it’s been really interesting to read everyone’s comments and I think I understand some people’s hesitance a little better but speaking just for me, I like that it’s inclusive without being too broad. On TikTok and in meme posts at least it felt like it grew from wanting to center being gay for women (and people that vibe with womanhood) without having to assume that the person being gay was necessarily a lesbian vs bi or pan or a woman themselves and also not being so broad as to include all queers and do all of that briefly enough to have room for anything else.

  16. I’m going to preface this by saying that 1. I’m old and 2. I’m drawn to bookish social media, which a very narrow sub-section of social media. But so many of the people I see using “Sapphic” seem to be using it as a way of overcorrecting to a fear of bisexual or nonbinary erasure?

    I regularly see Bookstagram people talk about romance and use “Sapphic” instead of F/F. And on it’s own, fine. But if every other couple-combination is described with letter pairings (M/F, M/M, FMM, MFM, FFM, etc), it just seems othering to me.

    Or I see people talking about queer representation in kid’s/teen’s books that use “Sapphic” to talk about girls and non-binary kids. But usually only afab non-binary kids, which gets into a terf-adjacent separation of amab non-binary kids.

    And because it’s a broader term, it removes some of the specificity that I think people want when we’re talking about books for kids, it’s not unusual to want to get as specific as possible when you’re looking for representation for a specific child in real life. That’s not unique to “Sapphic,” the same people seem to overuse “BIPoC” in the same way. And of course there’s a place for terms that cover more people in the community, but when people want to be able to hand a specific child a “mirror” book, it’s more helpful to use narrower terms.

    I know this is a very narrow context, but it’s the main place I see it. I’m sure it’s more useful in other contexts!

  17. To provide a little bit of context- I’m a 26yo community manager for several large online communities that have a lot of queer people in them in a wide range of ages, from young teens up. People use the word sapphic *constantly.* Multiple times a day, a conversation, a paragraph. I would recommend getting used to it, because I strongly suspect it is going nowhere fast.

    I think one piece of context that’s missing a little is that it is a WORKHORSE word, not an aesthetic word. if Sappho was a lesbian or bisexual or what her poetry is like or if the word sounds soft and uwu just… doesn’t end up mattering. A word was needed that elegantly conveyed a mutually-understood topic, and like a good neighbor, sapphic was there. You just don’t think about the isle of Lesbos when you call yourself a lesbian.

    And it turns out, it’s actually incredibly useful- am I genderqueer in a relationship with a NB person but need to express that our relationship is the kind where we’d go for a drink at a lesbian bar? Sapphic. Are you bisexual and I’m a lesbian and we’re talking about our mutual love of womenfolk? Sapphic. It condenses a concept that people understand intuitively, but can’t really express using plain English, and that’s why people like and use it so much.

    Let me try and define what I perceive as the colloquial definition of sapphic is as I see it used in daily conversation: “Sapphic, sometimes sapphic-aligned, is an umbrella term that refers to people, artistic works, and relationships that are associated with both women who are attracted to women, as well as non-binary people who are attracted to women in a ‘gay’ way.” I guess? Again, it’s a very intuitive. Is your NB/NB relationship sapphic? Only you know!

    Not that anyone’s critique is unfounded, of course. But I just wanted to provide the perspective of someone for whom “sapphic” is just. A normal word I say all the time. Do I like it? Sure, well enough. But more than that, it’s *useful.*

    • Just as an example, Autostraddle bills itself as a “website for lesbian culture that’s inclusive of trans and nonbinary people and all queer women.” If autostraddle was being made today by people in their mid-20s, there would be at minimum a strong consideration for using the word sapphic in that description. Probably not replacing the whole thing, there’s value in writing things out explicitly, but I would bet on it likely being included.

  18. Thank you for this article! I like the term “sapphic” as an umbrella term, primarily because it feels like anti-bi-erasure to me and that’s comforting as a bisexual woman. And it’s super important to have a word that’s inclusive of nb people who opt in to its use.

  19. *sigh* OK so, this was supposed to go up like the very day the article got published, but … here we are.
    This is the statistical methods section for Chandra’s statement about Google Books NGram data: the portion of the mega-metric-fuckton iceberg of nerdery lurking below the water. Chandra gave you the short version; for the medium version, skip to my last reply to this note, beginning “TL;DR.” Everything else is analysis. Math! Graphs! I wrote for people without a stats background. Titrate your nerdery exposure by interest level and risk tolerance. If you overexpose yourself to nerdery, lay down in a dark room with a cool wet cloth over your eyes, and eat chocolate.
    Disclaimers about me: My long-ago BA in Linguistics does not make me an expert in corpus linguistics. I like stats, but my PhD isn’t in that area.
    Disclaimers about the data: The Google Books corpus covers millions of books; we looked only in English, using the latest (2019) version. As Heather Rose Jones pointed out in a comment above, OED editors suppressed words like “lesbian”; it’s plausible that other editors and publishers over the years may have done similarly, so data based on published books seem likely to underestimate usage.
    Here’s me figuring out whether the comments will let me put in links like to the raw data, or use italics, or superscripts. Put on your nerdin’ boots and click “Show replies” at your own risk… ;)

    • If you follow that raw-data link, you’ll see Google can’t resist prettifying a graph even with smoothing set at 0. I didn’t smooth mine so y’all could see how messy the data are.
      The technique I used is called a control chart, which graphs a phenomenon over time to track whether or when it deviates far enough from baseline to represent real change. “Real” here means “unlikely, based on what we expect from the baseline.” Small changes have to last awhile before they’re convincing. A large change can be briefer.
      Officially, the rules are:
      1. “Four out of five successive points are on the same side of the centerline and farther than 1 standard deviation from it,” OR
      2. “Two out of three successive points are on the same side of the centerline and further than 2 standard deviations from it.” (One standard deviation means, roughly, how far the average data point is from the mean. Bigger SDs mean more spread-out data.)
      These rules assume that we’re looking for change in either direction, and that our baseline data are normally distributed (clustered around a central mean, with more extreme values uncommon and symmetrical around the mean – equally likely to be higher or lower). With normally distributed data, we know what portion are within however many SDs of the mean, so we can figure out how likely it is to see a data point that extreme or more so. We want to define how unlikely something has to be before we decide it represents real change vs. baseline; SDs are a shortcut that only work with normally distributed data.
      For baseline, we used 1847-1896: the fifty years right before Grenfell & Hunt found the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, including “Sappho’s Confession.” We thought that was a safe choice for when “sapphic” couldn’t have meant anything but “relating to Sappho’s poetry.” As Heather Rose Jones pointed out above, we were wrong – I’ll address that below.
      Were our baseline data normally distributed? Nope! Here’s what they looked like, using the Sturges’ Rule convention for number of bins:
      histogram of ‘sapphic’ usage, 1847-96 per Google Books NGram data
      So we need cutoffs based on percentages rather than standard deviations. What level of “unlikely” were the SD-based rules looking for?
      Rule 1: 68.27% of normally distributed data would fall within 1 SD of the mean, leaving 100% – 68.27% = 31.73% more extreme, split evenly between high and low values. We only cared about increased usage of “sapphic.” That means looking for four out of five successive points that would have placed in the top 31.73% of the baseline data. If nothing changed post-baseline, the chance of four such points together would be (0.3173)^4 = 0.010136 or about a 1% chance of occurring.
      Rule 2: 95.45% of normally distributed data would be closer to the mean than 2 standard deviations, with 100% – 95.45% = 4.55% remaining. Following the same logic as above, the chance of seeing two out of three successive points that would have placed in the top 4.55% of the baseline data is 0.0455 x 0.0455 = 0.002025 (0.2025%).
      Since we had 50 data points in our baseline, each is 2% of the whole. If we set cutoffs above the value of the lowest 34 points (68% of the data) or the lowest 48 points (96%), we’ll have almost exactly the same chance of “unlikely” findings that the official, normal-data rule has.

    • So we’ve got our baseline and we’ve figured out our rule. It’s time for … the control chart!
      control chart for ‘sapphic’ usage showing baseline 1847-96, new data through 2019, cutoffs based on lowest 68% and 96% of baseline data
      1991-1995 are the first five years in which four exceeded the lower cutoff, and once this criterion is met, it stays fulfilled for all subsequent five-year periods in the data. There’s only a 0.32^4 = 0.010486 (about 1%) chance that any one of those five-year periods is really just a random fluctuation around baseline levels. Of the twenty-nine years between 1991 and 2019 (inclusive), twenty-seven exceeded the lower cutoff, and there’s only a 0.32^27 = 4.4 x 10-14 (4.4 x 10-12%) chance that THAT’s random fluctuation rather than real change.
      2013-2015 are the first three years in which two exceeded the higher cutoff, and after 2014-2016 the criterion isn’t met again in these data. Two years exceeding the higher cutoff together have a 0.04^2 = 0.0016 (0.16%) chance of being observed in the baseline data.
      TL;DR? “A notable spike in frequency around 2014,” like Chandra said, imposed on a smaller increase beginning in the early 1990s.

      • (Whoops, forgot the superscripting tag doesn’t work here. The “-14” and “-12” are supposed to be exponents. So 0.000000000000044 and 0.0000000000044 respectively.)
        Heather Rose Jones mentioned above “the use of ‘sapphic’ in English in a sexual orientation sense … throughout the 1700s.” The Google Books Ngrams corpus, going back to 1500, first detected “sapphic” in 1749. The control chart below repeats the previous analysis using 1748-1896 as a baseline. The new data look even messier! Keep in mind the data are percentage of the corpus and presumably a lot less was being published per year back then than now, so every appearance of “sapphic” was a still-tiny fish but could make a bigger splash in a smaller pond.
        control chart for ‘sapphic’ usage showing baseline 1748-1896, new data through 2019, cutoffs based on lowest 68.5% and 95.3% of baseline data
        This time 1993-97 are the first five years in which four exceeded the lower cutoff. Of the twenty-seven years between 1993 and 2019 (inclusive), twenty-two exceeded the lower cutoff: a 0.32^22 = 9.5 x 10^(-12) (9.5 x 10^(-10)%) chance of observing that run if nothing significant had changed from baseline.
        Only 2014 alone exceeded the higher cutoff (a 4.7% chance of being observed under baseline conditions), so we don’t actually have a run of two out of three successive points that extreme.

    • TL;DR version 2
      1. Still likely something is different, from the early/mid-1990s to 2019, versus the new extended baseline. And plausible, but less sure, that someone was up to “sapphic”-using hijinks in 2014.
      2. I’ve now used over 1300 words and three graphs (actually fourteen, ’cause you’re only seeing the final-draft analysis) to say what Chandra said in seven words. This is why mega-metric-fuckton icebergs of nerdery lurk below the surface: everyone would avoid them if they showed. They’re sneaky that way.
      3. Thanks to Chandra for letting me nerd out on her idea and to Heather Rose Jones for making the analysis better. (Sorry it took so long to post this, Chandra!)

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