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Dyke (slang)

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Dyke (slang)

The term dyke or dike 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 woman, and this usage is still predominant. However, there have been attempts by some lesbian groups to use it as a neutral synonym for lesbian.[1]


The origin of the term is obscure, and many theories have been proposed.[2][3] 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.[4] In his review of a short-lived 1930 Broadway play, Robert Benchley says

[the hero]…is confronted with several engineering problems which he solves by mistake. There’s your story. Interlard it with every known crack which has been made along Broadway for the past two years (and several which haven’t, chief among them being: "Did you employ dikes in building the Barge Canal?" "No, we just had a gang of Italians." This I consider top for the evening.) and there you have “So Was Napoleon.”[5]

The term bulldyker, from which dyke may have been shortened, first appeared in 1920s novels connected with the Harlem Renaissance.[2] 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.

Several theories have been proposed for the origin of bulldyker. One 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.[6] 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.[7]

In Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn proposed that the word bulldyke may have arisen from the name of the Celtic queen Boadicea.[1][3]

Acceptance of the term

Sirens Motorcycle Club leading the New York City LGBT pride parade.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the term has been reclaimed by some lesbian groups. 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,[8] the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board permitted the group to register its name.[9]


The term will sometimes have an adjective added to it, as in:

  • 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.[10]
  • Bear dyke: a lesbian of especially large build and/or physical prowess.
  • Bi-Dyke, byke or half dyke: an identity used in a variety of ways, including by some bisexual women who feel more attracted to women than to men or by lesbian or dyke-identified women who acknowledge some sexual or emotional affection for men.[11] Also used by some women who identify as being primarily attracted to genderqueer individuals.
  • Bulldyke, bull dyke, bulldiker or bulldiger (also bulldagger): a butch or masculine lesbian.
  • Chapstick dyke or chapstick lesbian: refers to lesbians who fall between bulldyke and lipstick lesbian.[12]
  • Dyke in Denial ("D.I.D."): Used by lesbians to refer to women who fit the stereotype of a lesbian in behavior or appearance but self-identify as bisexual or heterosexual. Also used as a referential identifier for a woman who is still in the process of coming out to themselves as a dyke/lesbian.
  • Femme dyke: a lesbian who presents in an (often stylized) traditionally feminine way.
  • 'Frisco dyke: a queer woman who hails from, lives in, or espouses aesthetics/ideologies congruent with those popular among dykes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Lipstick dyke: variation on the pop-culture term "lipstick lesbian". Also known as a "doily dyke".
  • Trans dyke: Transsexual or Transgender woman who romantically and/or sexually prefers women.
  • Soft dyke: Also referred to as "soft butch", this is generally used for lesbians who dress in a masculine style but retain feminine appearance (e.g., longer hair, chapstick, clear nail polish, feminine shoes, etc.).

Dyke bars

A dyke bar is any bar or club 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.

See also


  1. ^ a b Krantz, Susan E. (1995). "Reconsidering the Etymology of Bulldike". American Speech (American Speech, Vol. 70, No. 2) 70 (2): 217–221.  
  2. ^ a b Spears, Richard A. (1985). "American Speech". American Speech 60 (4): 318–327.  
  3. ^ a b Dynes, Wayne R. (1991). The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Garland Publishing. pp. 335–336. 
  4. ^ "dike, dyke, n.3." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford UP. 4 Apr. 2000
  5. ^ Benchley, Robert (1930). "The Theatre" inThe New Yorker; Jan. 11, p. 35. See also Louis Menand's "It Took a Village: How the Voice Changed Journalism" in the January 5, 2009, edition of The New Yorker, where on p. 39 he references Mary McCarthy's use of the "dike" spelling from her time in Greenwich Village in the 1930s.
  6. ^ According to The Oxford English Dictionary records no such interpretation.
  7. ^ Herbst, Phillip (2001). Wimmim, Wimps & Wallflowers: an encyclopaedic dictionary of gender and sexual orientation bias. Intercultural Press. p. 332.  
  8. ^ Anten, Todd (2006). "Self-Disparaging Trademarks and Social Change: Factoring the Reappropriation of Slurs into Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act" ( 
  9. ^ (
  10. ^ Baby Dyke
  11. ^
  12. ^
  • 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

External links

  • Etymology of dyke on the Online Etymology Dictionary
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