Word of mouth: Homosexuality

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A Hampshire curate has set off another row over homosexuality after he refused to baptise a child because it had a gay godfather. At the same time the Islamic wing of the Anti-Nancy League was marching to Trafalgar Square to condemn the ungodly faggots. Clearly the friends of Dorothy still have plenty of enemies.

Homosexuality is the only sexual practice with eponymous placenames. Buggers began life as 11th-century heretics in Bulgaria, sodomites came from the Dead Sea town twinned with Gomorrah, and lesbians from Sappho's island of Lesbos, although it is argued that lesbian derives from the Greek verb lesbizein, meaning "to lick the sexual organs", a verb English appears to lack. Fellatio, by the way, is not an Italian resort.

Queer and queen have only been used in the gay sense since the turn of the century; queen meant a pretty woman until Victorian times, when it came to mean prostitute. English has shown little imagination in the field of male homosexuality, resorting to the obvious terms such as shirtlifter and bum bandit, and even less in regard to lesbians. Certainly there is nothing to compare with the French term for lesbians, bottines (little boots) who se brouter (graze) on each other, nor the Spanish tortilleras (pancake sellers), which has a resonance in the Swedish for lesbian sex, sla flat (beat flat). A gay man in Italy is finocchio (fennel) and, staying with food metaphors, the French call male homosexuality la brioche infernale, not to be confused with a Danish pastry.

The Germans call a gay man ein warmer Bruder (warm brother) and lesbians Schwesteren (sisters), while the Greeks make a distinction between someone in the pstis (passive, from the Persian for arsehole, role) and the kolobars (active).

But gay's the word that continues to generate the most heat. Newspaper columnists and outraged of Kidderminster never tire of railing against the usurpation of this word. A hundred years ago a gay house was a brothel and a gay woman was an easy lay. Now, lacking a non-pejorative term, gay has been incorporated into numerous languages. In German and Japanese, Finnish and Catalan, gay's the word that accompanies the slamming of closet doors as battyboys, poofs and pansies come out to play.