What is the origin of the word lesbian?

Sappho of Lesbos
Sappho of Lesbos.

Question: What is the origin of the word lesbian?

The word lesbian means a female homosexual or woman who is primarily attracted to other women. Where did this word come from?

Answer: The word lesbian literally means resident of the Isle of Lesbos, the Greek Island.  The term came to describe women who love women after the island's most famous resident, the poet Sappho.

The poet Sappho of Lesbos (or Lesvos) lived in 600 B.C.

Sappho was an intellectual and poet who wrote many love poems to other women. Although much of her poetry has been destroyed by religious fundamentalists, the few poems of Sappho that remain speak clearly to her love and infatuation with women.

Her writings is very erotic, something uncommon, especially for women of that era. And it's clear from her writings that she loved men and women. She wrote very frankly about her love and attraction to women. She may have been the first woman to do so and hence, received scorn and criticism, both in her day and after her death. In fact, much of her poetry was either destroyed, edited or fragmented by moralists trying to cover up her blatantly erase the mentions of lesbianism in her words.  Literary scholars have tried to recreate her works, but much of it remains lost.

In 2014, the literary world rejoiced at the discovery of two new poems by Sappho.

Sappho lived in a time when women were not thought to be intellectuals nor sexual beings—especially without the participation of a man. How two women could be erotically connected was baffling. Yet, despite this controversy, Sappho was respected as a writer. Plato referred to her as the 10th muse. Some of her writing did survive.

To this day we use the term lesbian to refer to women who love women because of the life of Sappho. 

In the study of lesbian history, we often start with Sappho, because she is the first lesbian that we have documentation that existed. Of course, there have always been women-loving women in all cultures and times.  

It is unclear when the word "lesbian" was first used to describe women who love other women, but the first usage can be traced back to the 1800s. It came into popular use in the lesbian feminist era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Prior to the word lesbian gaining popularity, women who loved other women were often called "sapphic" or their love defined as "sapphistry." Again, these terms go back to the poet Sappho. This term was especially popular in the early 20th century, before lesbian was a common term used to refer to gay women. 

Here are fragments of three of Sappho's poems:

Awed by her splendor 

Awed by her splendor 
stars near the lovely 
moon cover their own 
bright faces 
when she 
is roundest and lights 
earth with her silver

It’s no use Mother dear

It’s no use

Mother dear, I

can’t finish my

weaving

You may

blame Aphrodite

soft as she is

she has almost

killed me with

love for that boy

 

One Girl   

                                I

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,

Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —

Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.

 

                               II

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,

Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,

Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.