Is the word ‘dyke’ offensive?

Two women holding a sign that reads 'dyke'

If you’re a lesbian, or a sensible person of any other sexual orientation, you’ll already know that the word ‘dyke’ should not be used lightly and is generally considered offensive.

If you don’t know what you can and cannot say when it comes to derogatory queer terms, ‘dyke’ is a slang word for lesbian – often those of us who present masculine, butch or androgynous.

It originated as a derogatory label for lesbians, and is still used as such by some, well, dumb people, though has since been reclaimed by many girls-who-like-girls, and is widely accepted within the queer community.

Why? Well, people often argue that there’s power in taking back slur words used against them. What others have used to hurt us, they can no longer, because the power has been taken away from them.

According to GLAAD, the term dyke is still derogatory and offensive, and the criteria for using the word should be the same as those applied to vulgar labels used to target other groups. It should not be used except in a direct quote that reveals the bias of the person quoted.

It’s also recommended that when used by the media, even in a quote, it’s preferable that reporters say: ‘The person used a derogatory word for a lesbian.’

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Though the origin of the word dyke isn’t actually known, it’s thought to have come from the mid-19th century term ‘bulldyke,’ also used as a pejorative way to describe lesbians.

The term was reclaimed as early as 1971, when feminist lesbian poet and author Judy Rae Grahn published a poem called ‘Edward the Dyke’ in the Women’s Press Collective.

These days, Dyke Marches are proof of how the lesbian community has reclaimed the term. Dyke Marches – mostly-lesbian protests akin to LGBTQ+ pride parades – aim to increase lesbian visibility and activism, and include people who identify as bisexual, intersex, non-binary, transgender, and so on.

Related: Lesbian slang dictionary – The big queer lingo glossary

In the lesbian community, the word dyke is used in several slang terms, including ‘baby dyke’ – which refers to someone who recently came out as a lesbian, and ‘dykon’ – aka a famous woman popular among queer women and seen as a gay icon, who’s not necessarily gay herself.

Others include ‘bull dyke’ (the most masculine of butch lesbians), ‘diesel dyke’ (another butch variety of lesbian, similar to bull dyke, but associated with trucks, short hair and plaid shirts), ‘sporty dyke’ (a lesbian who dresses in sporty clothing and plays a lot of sport), and even ‘granola dyke’ – a lesbian who is vegan/vegetarian and enjoys wearing Birkenstocks, eating tofu, listening to folk music, and playing the acoustic guitar, etc.

Despite all of this, it’s still very much used as a slur – just look at right-wing pundits Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes, who, in March, went on a bizarre rant in which they claimed that “sexless, depressed, old, chubby dykes control the political narrative.”

Also in March, SNP MP Mhairi Black opened up about the vile homophobic and sexist abuse she has suffered as a Member of Parliament.

The out Scottish National Party politician became the UK’s youngest MP when she entered Parliament in 2015 – but revealed that she’s ‘been called a dyke, a rug muncher, a whore.’

Generally speaking, it’s considered rude and offensive to use the word ‘dyke’ unless you self-identify as one. If you’re ever unsure about using the word, just don’t – even if you’re an LGBTQ+ person. (And just don’t at all if you’re straight.)

To describe a homosexual woman, lesbian is the correct term.