What does sapphic mean?

What does sapphic mean?

4 minutes read

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You might have wondered why I named this website The Sapphic Quill.

Well, the quill part should be obvious—it’s an instrument for writing, and while modern writers don’t use quills anymore, it just sounds more poetic than The Sapphic Keyboard.

The sapphic part deserves a more detailed explanation.

What does sapphic mean?

The word sapphic was derived from the famous Greek poet Sappho, who wrote about love and passion between women. So, interestingly, it has similar roots as the word lesbian, which was derived from the island of Lesbos, where Sappho lived.

However, nowadays, the two terms aren’t synonyms.

Sapphic is an umbrella term that includes all (cis and trans) women who love women—lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and questioning women, as well as asexual & ace-spectrum and aromantic & aro-spectrum women who are attracted to women.

But sapphic doesn’t just encompass women-loving women; it also includes nonbinary, genderqueer, and intersex people who are attracted to women if the term sapphic resonates with them (Note: Not all nonbinary, genderqueer, and intersex people who are attracted to women identify as sapphic).

By the way, there’s even a sapphic flag: Two pink stripes at the top and bottom and a light lavender stripe with a violet in the middle.

Sapphic flag

The connection between sapphics and violets can be traced back to Sappho too.

Is sapphic a new term?

Some people seem to think that sapphic is a new term, but that’s not the case at all.

According to Heather Rose Jones, who discusses the differences between the terms sapphic and lesbian from a linguistic angle on her podcast, sapphic was fairly commonly used to describe women-loving women by the 18th century. Only in the 19th and 20th century did the word lesbian become more common in this context.

By the time the ebook revolution happened, the term sapphic was rarely used anymore and considered a bit archaic.

So it was the obvious choice for Amazon and other retailers to name the category for the type of books I write lesbian fiction.

But as more books were published, the category became much more diverse when it comes to its characters’ sexual orientation and gender identity. Not all books have lesbian protagonists. What if a book features two bisexual women who are in love with each other? While the book would appeal to the same audience, calling it lesbian fiction would erase their identity as bisexual women.

That’s why, during the past five years or so, many readers and writers have started to use sapphic as a broader term when referring to the category (even though Amazon hasn’t yet followed suit). Since it had fallen into disuse, it was no longer as strongly associated with an exclusive attraction to women as lesbian, making it the perfect umbrella term.

But isn’t using the term sapphic erasing lesbians?

Actually, no—although I know some people feel that way.

The term sapphic isn’t meant to replace lesbian. Neither of these terms can replace the other because they have come to mean different things. I happily use both words, depending on the context.

If I refer to myself, I use lesbian most of the time. Referring to me as a sapphic woman would be correct too.

It’s a bit like being German and European—you can be both, and one of these labels doesn’t take anything away from the other. Some Germans might feel more German, while others prefer to think of themselves as Europeans.

If I refer to some of my books—Just for Show, Falling Hard, or Under a Falling Star, for example—I call them lesbian romances because both main characters in these books are lesbians. They are also sapphic romances because the term sapphic includes lesbians.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with calling a book lesbian fiction—if that’s what it is. Find out more about the differences between lesbian fiction, sapphic fiction, and other related terms.

Each author gets to pick what term describes their book best, just as each individual gets to pick what label fits them best.

But that’s talking about individual people or individual books.

When we are talking about groups of people or categories of books, things get more complicated.

These days, when I’m asked what kind of books I write, my answer would be: sapphic romances—because while most of my characters are lesbians, I also have bisexual and pansexual characters (e.g., Anja in Paper Love), an asexual character (Holly in Perfect Rhythm), and women who aren’t yet sure what label fits them best or if they want one at all (e.g., Eliza in Wrong Number, Right Woman). So calling my entire backlist lesbian romance would not do justice to all of my characters. That’s why I appreciate sapphic as a more inclusive term when talking about my body of work.

It’s equally handy when we’re talking about the entire category of books. We know there will be a mix of main characters—some who will identify as lesbians and others who won’t—and sapphic respects all of their identities.

To use the same comparison I used above: I wouldn’t refer to a group of people that consists of folks from Germany, France, Spain, and Belgium as German; I would refer to them as Europeans because that covers all of their nationalities.

So, to sum it up, sapphic isn’t replacing or erasing lesbian. Both terms are valid, depending on the context.

If we’re talking about the category of books—as I’m doing on this website—the term sapphic is the most respectful and inclusive, and that’s why I’m using it.

Please leave a comment

What about you? Is sapphic a term you use to refer to your books or to the category of books? Has your relationship with the term changed over time?
Feel free to let us know in the comments—but please remember to be respectful. This website is an inclusive and safe space for everyone, so hateful comments will not be tolerated.

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