Can anyone who knows something about modern Greece tell me what (if anything) the inhabitants of Lesbos — Lesvos in modern Greek, I believe — think about the term "lesbian"? Do they perceive it as annoying? Offensive? Amusing? Is there no dominant view on the subject?

Relatedly, my quick searches suggest that the term "lesbian" is also present in other European languages, such as French and Greek. Is it identical to those languages' terms for inhabitants of Lesbos (or perhaps just the terms for female inhabitants of Lesbos, in languages that distinguish gender in such proper names)? Is it similar?

I ask these questions not to make some point, but just because I'm curious about how people react to historical accidents such as this one. (A different, though perhaps indirectly related, question: Do the inhabitants of Lesbos view Sappho as a heroine, the way many places view local girls/boys who made it big, or do they view her askance? [UPDATE: See below.])

A separate question, which might make some point, but which I stress is analytically distinct from the empirical questions I ask above: Say that the inhabitants of Lesbos find the term offensive. Should others, including lesbians, try to shift to a different term? Or should they go ahead with the term that they've used for a long time?

UPDATE: Thanks to Dr. Weevil, and Lesbian Fiction Herstory (which I found through a search inspired by Dr. Weevil's comment), I can illustrate this post with this statute of Sappho that is apparently in the town square of Mytilini, the main city of Lesbos:

Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
In French, "lesbien" means both "Lesbian" and "lesbian":
7.25.2007 3:26pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Obviously, in the "female homosexual" sense, "lesbien" would usually take its feminine form, "lesbienne," unless you wanted to talk, perhaps, about a lesbian trapped in a man's body. Of course you could talk about, say, a "lesbian bookstore," but in French you'd probably phrase it differently.
7.25.2007 3:28pm
It would take the masculine form when modifying a masculine noun. Thus, describing the lesbian section of a general-interest bookstore, you might say le couloir lesbien (the "aisle of lesbos").
7.25.2007 3:40pm
Giannis (mail):
As a Greek-American, I will try to answer this one.

(1) Lesbos is pronounced "Lesvos" in Modern Greek, because "beta" is pronounced "veeta."

(2) As for the Greek word for "lesbian" and "Lesbian," they are, of course, different. For "Lesbian," we say: Λέσβιος ("Lesvios") (male) and Λέσβια ("Lesvia")(female). For "lesbian," we say: "ομοφυλόφιλη" ("omophilophili") ("homosexual" in the feminine form); λεσβιάδα ("lesviada"); and sometimes "τριβαδικός" (trivadikos), but that is more of an adjective (whose root I am not sure I understand or know). We also say: λεσβιασμός (lesviasmos) and τριβαδισμός (trivadismos) for "lesbianism."

(3) I don't know that people from Lesbos are really offended by their name being used to describe Lesbians, but I do know that they are kind of "traditional" or "conservative" people who seem on the whole to dislike the influx of lesbian tourism they get in the summer months. Indeed, unlike Mykonos, which has happily capitalized off of gay travel, Lesbos doesn't really do that. Nonetheless, the lesbians come to visit Eressos, the home of the poet Sappho. A quick search shows that someone has even done a study on these visits, as well as their impact on the locals, but I read it and it looks more like a synopsis and doesn't really say also clearly has a "pro-gay" bias, so might not reflect genuine local feelings.

(4) I don't think that we should avoid using a term because it offends the locals. Greek people don't really care what non-Greek people call them anyway. My parents are from Crete and are "Cretans", but they had no idea (until moving to the states) that this sounded like an insult in English. I guess the Lesbos thing is different. Anyway, I think, and not to be majoritarian, but there are probably more "lesbians" in the word than "Lesbians", so at the very least the term has gathered secondary meaning.

(5) Finally, this issue is quite interesting. Greeks in general, I feel, try to "hide" their "homosexual past", as that so many gays and lesbians try to unsurface in order to find support for their lifestyle. It's an interesting study on changing concepts of morality and the influence of religion. Indeed, going to school in the states (high school at least) we never heard about Shakespeare's bisexuality or Plato's homosexuality.
7.25.2007 3:53pm
Eric Muller (www):
Not sure about the residents of Lesbos, but the good citizens of Intercourse, Pennsylvania have had just about enough of the joking, thank you very much.
7.25.2007 4:04pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Eric Muller wins.
7.25.2007 4:09pm
ak47pundit (www):
A complete irrelevant aside, The historic use of the term Lesbian for the inhabitants of Lesbos resulted in one of those great college memories froma discussion about Thucydides Peloponesian War Book 3 Ch 9 in an ancient history class.

I remember the in-class discussion when a student was amazed that lesbians had their own country back then - after all the story told of the lesbians' revolt from Athenian domination and their subsequently having to pay tribute to Athens, so the hapless student figured it had to do with the rifeness of homosexuality in ancient Greece.

After all Book 3 Ch 9 states:
The Lesbians had wished to revolt even before the war, but the Lacedaemonians would not receive them; and yet now when they did revolt, they were compelled to do so sooner than they had intended. . . . . Afterwards tribute was not imposed upon the Lesbians; but all their land, except that of the Methymnians, was divided into three thousand allotments, three hundred of which were reserved as sacred for the gods, and the rest assigned by lot to Athenian shareholders,
who were sent out to the island. With these the Lesbians agreed to pay a rent of two minae a year for each allotment, and cultivated the land themselves.

Most of the class burst out laughing, and the Professor barely managed to avoid falling over laughing.
7.25.2007 4:10pm
Christopher M (mail):
Here is one relevant account, from an article in a journal devoted to gay and lesbian studies:

Since the end of the 1970s a fairly large number of lesbian women—coming initially from the United States and northern Europe and later from Italy, Spain, and other places, as well as from elsewhere in Greece—have visited Eresos, which has become known as a point for lesbian women from all over the world to meet during the summer. A seasonal lesbian community is re-created every summer, a community with its own territorial and symbolic boundaries, a community differentiated over time.


Since Eresos first gained a reputation as a place that attracts lesbians, overt antagonism has arisen between lesbian women and the local people, often in the form of a contest—on both territorial and symbolic levels—
for the facts. Lesbian women who visit Eresos lay claim to it because it gave birth to and brought up Sappho; in this respect it is a place of symbolic meaning for the lesbian community. Locals who wish to claim it as their own stress their right to invest in the kind of tourists they want. During the years between the establishment of a lesbian community in Eresos in the late 1970s and the discord of today that pits an “us” against a “them,” stories of “wild women” versus “moral locals,” on the one hand, and of “vulgar locals” versus “liberal and independent women,” on the other, have proliferated. Attempts to describe the lesbian community of Eresos have converged to confirm the confrontation.

Kantsa, Venetia, "Certain Places Have Different Energy": Spatial Transformations in Eresos, Lesvos, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies - Volume 8, Number 1-2, 2002, pp. 35-55.

The author goes on with a somewhat more nuanced description. Anyway, this is not a rigorous study, just a perspective.
7.25.2007 4:11pm
Giannis (mail):

Don't use that dictionary for Greek, it is horribly flawed. It doesn't even use the right "sigma" (we have one that is used at the end of words and one that is used in the beginning and middle of words, in the lower case). Also, as I pointed out, it is not accurate. You should use:

It is in Greek, but you can put either English or Greek in that spot and it translates it to the other.

[Secret: It's what I used to reproduce the Greek font above, i.e., through cutting and pasting, though I knew the words, I don't have the Greek keyboard function on this computer and knew that cutting and pasting woudl be easiest...]
7.25.2007 4:13pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
A Greek-American friend in grad school (for Classics) used to like to shock people by telling them "My mother's a Spartan and my father's a Lesbian".

I've never been to Lesbos, but a Classics professor who has once told me that there's a statue of Sappho in (I think) Mytilene. I think he said it is life-sized and bronze. I know he said that it's right in front of a warehouse with the Greek word for 'moving and storage' in big letters, which makes for amusing snapshots: the word is METAPHORA, which is very appropriate for a poet like Sappho.

Just to confuse things, in Sappho's time Lesbos was known for its fine wines, beauty contests, womens' fashions, and the local girls' (alleged) propensity for fellatio. In other words, the same stereotype as France today. (I don't know whether ancient Lesbian cheese was famours or not.) Of course, fellatio seems entirely incompatible with Lesbianism in the modern sense.
7.25.2007 4:16pm
Trivadikos comes from the Latin "Tribada/us," meaning "one who rubs." Its use as a term for lesbians should be obvious.
7.25.2007 4:18pm
Gianni, I believe the root for τριβαδικός is likely to be τρίβω, the verb (in ancient as well as modern Greek) for "to rub."
7.25.2007 4:20pm
BobDoyle (mail):
I now live in Pennsylvania, but not in Intercourse, and grew up in Minnesota, but not in Climax, whose denizens, it seems to me, took much more grief from their fellow Minnesotans than the Intercoursers take from their fellow citizens from Penn's Woods!
7.25.2007 4:21pm
Rich B. (mail):
Of course, residents of Intercouse, PA live relatively close to Blue Ball, PA.

Given the relative embarrassments, I am sure that helps the residents of Intercourse accept their lot in life.
7.25.2007 4:33pm
Paul Ohm (mail) (www):
My wife's father's side of the family is from Lesbos. My in-laws spend their summers in the ancestral home in Skala Eressos, and I've visited twice. The hills directly above Eressos house some ruins that are said to be where Sappho wrote some of her poetry.

I'd echo much of what Giannis said. Eressos is a small village and the local residents--at least the old-timers--seem very traditional and old-fashioned. I've heard people in the village grumble about the lesbian tourists, but I recall most of the complaints involving the fact that the lesbians who visit are young and poor, and I don't recall objections framed in moral or religious terms.

That said, my impression is that the Eressians are very, very proud of their connection to Sappho, in the same way that many Greeks are proud of their connection to ancient history.
7.25.2007 4:33pm
Rubber Goose (mail):
Isn't it true that if you stop a few miles short of Intercourse you end up in Blue Ball?
7.25.2007 4:35pm
Mark Field (mail):

I don't know that people from Lesbos are really offended by their name being used to describe Lesbians, but I do know that they are kind of "traditional" or "conservative" people who seem on the whole to dislike the influx of lesbian tourism they get in the summer months. Indeed, unlike Mykonos, which has happily capitalized off of gay travel, Lesbos doesn't really do that.

My neighbor across the street happens to come from Lesbos. This is essentially identical to what he has told me.
7.25.2007 4:35pm
Rubber Goose (mail):
Whoops, sorry, I see Rich B. beat me to it.
7.25.2007 4:35pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
The old-fashioned adjective 'Sapphic' would be a far more accurate equivalent for the sexual use of 'Lesbian'. There were two great lyric poets living on Lesbos in the late 7th century B.C., and some ancients (Horace, for one) seem to have thought that Alcaeus was the greater of the two. As a man who liked boys and girls, 'Lesbian' doesn't really apply to him.
7.25.2007 4:36pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
BobDoyle: Yes, but still not as much grief as the denizens of Blue Ball, PA!
7.25.2007 4:36pm
Giannis (mail):

Yeah, I figured it was from that word, but didn't want to "go there", as it were.

eck, you must speak Greek (you knew to remove my "s" for the vocative case!). Mpravo sou!!!

JB, Greek first my friend, Latin always second. ;-)
7.25.2007 4:39pm
Giannis (mail):
Oh, and Paul is very right. Don't take the love the people of Lesbos have for Sappho and her poetry as an endorsement of homosexuality, just like you shouldn't take Greek people's love of Plato, Socrates, etc. as such an endorsement, either.
7.25.2007 4:45pm
Well the people of Intercourse may be tired of the joking, but the people of Fucking, Austria have been putting up with it since 1070.
7.25.2007 4:50pm
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
I studied at Panepistimio Ayyaio (how's that for transliteration) and lived with a family in Mytilene. Believe it or not, the subject never came up.

Perhaps they feel the same way the Dixie Chicks feel about having the President referred to as a Texan.
7.25.2007 4:59pm
cathyf, I am irresistibly reminded of the recent Washington Post contest to suggest suitable sports team names for any non-US city.

Personal favorite:
Macabebe (Philippines) Bustin' Trojans
7.25.2007 5:02pm
Extraneus (mail):
Oh, sure. Rhymes with "looking." Right. And if you miss it, I suppose you get to "vonk" in Bavaria?
7.25.2007 5:03pm
Houston Lawyer:
Maybe the residence of Lesbos don't like plaid.
7.25.2007 5:32pm
I would confirm what has been said on the way the residents of Lesbos look at the issue. I would however add as a native speaker of Greek two linguistic points.
First (respectfully disagreeing with Giannis) the Greek words for lesbian and Lesbian are very much the same: λεσβία / lesvia. The only difference (apart from the capital L) is (sometimes) the word stress: in lesbian it´s always the i that gets stressed, in Lesbian it may be the e (more modern) or the i (a bit more traditionalist, but still in use). The only actual alternative for lesbian is omophilophili (but it is too long and formal to be used as widely as lesbian), whereas lesviada and trivadikos are absolutely never used; Gianni, maybe you can find them in a dictionary, but they are totally unknown in modern Greece.
Second, the island has nowadays an alternative name as well, i.e. Μυτιλήνη / Mytilini (which is also, as mentioned above, the name of its capital). This leads to a sort of practical solution to the possible confusion between lesbian and Lesbian: the female resident is also called Μυτιληνιά / Mytilinia (and they may also tend to say that they "come from Lesbos"). So residents do try to avoid the confusion in my experience by exploring the possibilities offeren by the Greek language to alter the way they refer to themselves.
7.25.2007 5:54pm
Giannis (mail):
I grew up in Crete until I was 12 and I have heard those words my whole life, but okay.

Also, "lesBIa" and "LESbia" are completely different words. Just, as you I am sure you would agree, "douLEIa" (slavery) and "douleiA" are different. The stress is VERY VERY important, kale mou. ;-)
7.25.2007 5:59pm
Well, I´ve lived in Greece much longer than you, and I have never ever heard them (by the way, I do not suggest they are non-existent in theory, but rather that they are not part of the "active vocabulary" in any formal or informal setting), but I guess we´ll have to live with our disagreement:-) We don´t want to turn the VC to a forum for Greek linguistics, do we?
The stress is important indeed. But, as I mentioned, in a at least equally used form of Lesbian (the resident) even the stress is the same, which makes them feel like the same word anyway. That alternatives for Lesbian are in use also suggests that people do sense some confusion and try to avoid it.
7.25.2007 6:12pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Almost due east of Climax, MN, you'll find the town of Fertile. Head south from there and you'll get to Twin Valley.

Truth in advertising.
7.25.2007 8:13pm
Randy R. (mail):
On the other hand, the people of Condom, France, enjoy the publicity.
7.25.2007 8:20pm
jdh (mail) (www):
Well the people of Intercourse may be tired of the joking, but the people of Fucking, Austria have been putting up with it since 1070.

Incredible stamina.
7.25.2007 9:08pm
Giannis (mail):

(1) I definitely yield to you on the language point; I didn't mean to imply that you were wrong. I was just saying that I wasn't getting mine from a dictionary. I was stupid for forgetting "lesbia" which as you say is a more common way of saying "lesbian." At the same time, I'd point out that I have never heard or read the other version of "Lesbia" (i.e., the one with the stress on the "wrong" syllable). I think the Greek language distinguishes, BUT this could be because I am too young to have heard the "traditional." But you raise an interesting point and the Greek linguistics does answer EV's question I think in part: If Greeks have shied away from calling themselves lesbIa because it sounds like lesbian, then maybe that's a sign that they are disturbed by the connection.

(2) I will say that I think the comment you made about getting around it by saying I am from Lesbos is an overstatement somewhat and involves unwarranted speculation on your part (are you sure this is why they say that). I only question this because ALL Greek people ask the question "Where are you from" and the answer, in my experience, is 90% of the time, "from x or y place." People rarely say "I'm Athenian" or "I'm Spartan." See what I mean? I think that is just a function of the language in general.

(3) We don't "disagree." I was wrong; you were right. There, I conceded, how NOT Greek of me is THAT. :-P
7.25.2007 9:14pm
Can't find a good name:
A few years ago, genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner wrote a monograph titled "The Lesbian ancestors of Prince Rainier of Monaco, Dr. Otto von Habsburg, Brooke Shields, and the Marquis de Sade" and promoted it on Usenet.

The announcement received some reactions that one might expect ("For them to have had descendants,these women's dedication to lesbianism must have wavered..."). However, the monograph was about Lesbians, not lesbians, as the title implied. It can be found here.
7.26.2007 12:14am
Eryk Boston (mail):
I wonder how the descendants of the Vandals, Goths and the Spankings enjoy the modern use of their names.
7.26.2007 12:20am
Gianni, your point on Greeks mostly saying “I come from Athens” rather than “I am Athenian” is well taken. (What’s the matter with us conceding to each other all the time?) However, Athenian would still be used in many other occasions, eg “Athenians suck the blood of the rest of us” (I don’t endorse the phrase!); but in the case of Lesbians, even in those occasions people would rather refer to the alternative name (Mytilinia) or to “women from Lesbos”.
So, I hope we can jointly answer EV’s empirical question as follows:
a. the principal Greek words for Lesbian and lesbian at least sound very similar (in my view they are almost identical, but let us leave that aside)
b. Lesbians (maybe Greeks generally) seem to dislike that linguistic connection
c. and hence they try to get around it, interestingly not (or at least not so much) by using another word for lesbian, but by going a bit out of their way to find an alternative for Lesbian.
Now, why is it Lesbian rather than lesbian that gets changed? A theory (with some speculation) could be that Lesbians are more motivated than other Greeks to undo the connection. Since they “control” the use of Lesbian and its synonyms (they refer to themselves more often than other Greeks refer to them) and they do not control the use of lesbian (equally used by all Greeks), it was easier for them to introduce alternatives to Lesbian rather than lesbian. Of course, this was caused by no deliberate concerted effort, rather it emerged gradually from language use and its underpinnings.
7.26.2007 8:17am
Giannis (mail):
gp: Agreed. :-)
7.26.2007 10:37am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Wow, thanks very much for the thoughtful and detailed responses -- I've found this fascinating, and much appreciate everyone's help.
7.26.2007 2:34pm