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  82 - Sparks  
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07/05/08 Lesbians vs Lesbians!
This week I have been thoroughly entertained by the news that a number of Lesbians (that is, inhabitants of the Greek island of Lesbos) are pissed off at lesbians (that is... well, lesbians) for stealing their demonym. So much so that they're prepared to go to court over it, in an effort to stop the use of the word 'lesbian' to describe what it's described for over a hundred years.

There are so many things about this that are funny. There's the islanders' staunch denials that they're motivated by homophobia, while at the same time dredging up a load of long-discredited bullcrap about how Sappho wasn't gay anyway and supposedly committed suicide for the love of a man. This was a common story in days gone by, although it's generally dismissed by modern historians... but it's interesting to see concerned Christians putting it forward in an effort to save the reputation of their island's most famous resident. Because being gay is a sin... but, uh, suicide is fine, right?

It amuses me further because this is Ancient Greece we're talking about. Some of the stuff the Ancient Greeks got up to would have made Sappho look like a nun in comparison. Plato advocated some decidedly dubious practices (you know the ones I'm talking about... and I won't name them here because the resultant Google hits would only depress me) and he remains a hero of philosophy, and yet Sappho's sexuality has always put her under a cloud.

It amuses me to hear the anti-lesbian Lesbians argue that Sappho's relationships with women were "platonic" when Sappho lived two hundred years before Plato was even born. I dunno, the linguistic irony just entertained me.

Most of all, it amuses me to see any effort by a special-interest group to change the way language is used. McDonalds tried it with the "McJob" definition: As you're probably aware, "McJob" is slang for, well, a crappy job. After it started appearing in dictionaries, McDonalds threw a hissy fit and complained to said dictionaries, insisting that their jobs weren't actually that crappy. This effort only succeeded in proving that the people in charge of McDonalds don't really understand what a dictionary is for: it records language as it is used, not as someone would like it to be used. If you fill a dictionary with what you think words ought to mean rather than what people actually use them for, then you've created a document that's no use to anybody. Similarly futile are the efforts of the Académie française to stop English loanwords from seeping into French. Language changes naturally, and you can't legislate against it: it's never worked and it never will. You might wonder if it's possible for a collection of such clearly learned men and women to be so dense... although I've spent enough time at various universities to confirm that it is.

Even if these linguistic fundamentalists do score a victory in the courts (which I'd say was highly unlikely, but on the other hand I dunno how the Greek courts work), their efforts are still doomed to failure. No legal decision is ever going to stop people from linking a particular word with the meaning they've always associated it with. These guys should really take a cue from the poets out there. It's probably quite hard to use the Sapphic meter without eliciting adolescent giggles, but you don't see them complaining. At least, not to my knowledge. I'm pretty sure they haven't taken the matter to court yet, anyway...

Fun Amazoness! fact: If you put the word "sapphic" into a Google image search (don't do this at work, for God's sake), the second non-pornographic result is one of my comics. Thanks to porn-seekers it's also the most-viewed comic on the site. Although I've a feeling this page may yet take over, since I've used the word "lesbian" about a hundred times.
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