The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Homosexual’


By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Where did the word ‘homosexual’ originate? It’s a surprisingly recent coinage, and dates from the second half of the nineteenth century, with a Victorian poet and critic being the first person to use the word in English. Let’s take a closer look at the etymology of ‘homosexual’, and learn what the word has in common with ‘television’, ‘petroleum’, and ‘automobile’.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the writer John Addington Symonds (1840-93), himself a homosexual man, as the first person on record to use the term ‘homosexual’ in English. He did so in 1891, in his Problems in Modern Ethics: ‘The author endeavoured to […] frame a general theory regarding the origin and prevalence of homosexual passions.’

The ‘author’ Symonds was referring to here was Sir Richard Burton (1821-90), the noted explorer and translator who, when he wasn’t translating the Arabian Nights or the erotic classic The Perfumed Garden, was undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca (the first European to do so) and narrowly avoiding being the inventor of Coca-Cola.

John Addington Symonds, by the way, was also a fascinating man: Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for his daughter, Janet Symonds. Although Symonds was married with children, was a pioneering poet of male homosexual love and desire, so it’s fitting that he was the first person writing in English to use the term. 1891 was also the year that the word first surfaced in French writing (as ‘homosexuel’).

But both the French use, and Symonds’ originating English use, owe their existence to the German adjective homosexual, which was itself formed from an earlier use of the word as a noun. The noun first appeared in print in Das Gemeinschädliche des § 143 des preussischen Strafgesetzbuches in 1869, and the author was K. M. Kertbeny. This piece challenged a law against homosexuality, and the noun ‘homosexual’ was coined to distinguish same-sex desire from ‘normalsexual’ desire.

But although the word first appeared in print in 1869, Kertbeny also already used ‘homosexual’ in a letter the previous year, alongside the corresponding (and contrasting) term ‘heterosexual’. The word managed to reach Symonds via Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Pyschopathia Sexualis (1886), which adopted Kertbeny’s terminology.

As the word entered mainstream use in English, it was often applied specifically to male homosexuality. As early as 1894, Edward Carpenter was writing, in his book Homogenic Love: ‘With regard to the number of these quite exclusive homosexuals (supposably born so) estimates vary, from one man in every 50 to one in every 500.’

This focus on male homosexuality was perhaps influenced (as the OED points out) by the mistaken belief that the ‘homo-’ in ‘homosexual’ comes from the Latin homo meaning ‘man’ (as in Homo sapiens), and therefore that ‘homo’ refers to men or males exclusively.

But the ‘homo-’ in ‘homosexual’ is not from Latin, and has nothing to do with men specifically: the homo- prefix is instead from the ancient Greek homo meaning ‘same’, as in ‘same-sex desire’. Curiously enough, ‘homosexual’ is a word which initially annoyed the etymological purists, being half-Greek and half-Latin: homo is from the Greek for ‘same’, while sexual is Latin.

Oddly enough, a similar thing occurred with the term ‘homophobia’, which meant simply ‘hatred of men’ when it was first coined in the early twentieth century. This is because the ‘homo-’ prefix was from the Latin homo, meaning ‘man’.

So the original coinage of ‘homophobia’ was also a mongrel mouthful of half-Latin and half-Greek (phobia being from the Greek for ‘fear’). It was only in the late 1960s, that ‘homophobia’ was, as it were, re-coined to refer to hatred of gay people, with this ‘homo-’ being influenced by ‘homosexual’.

But if we’re to throw out ‘homosexual’ on such grounds, we must also shun a number of other useful words, including ‘bigamy’, ‘genocide’, ‘petroleum’, ‘automobile’, and ‘television’, all of which are words formed from a combination of Greek and Latin roots. And what would do then, if we needed to refer to a homosexual bigamist who, after filling his automobile with petroleum and driving home, watched a documentary about genocide on the television?

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