I was reading a review in the TLS when I came across the assertion that “In 1869 — an annus mirabilis for sexology, the ‘scientific’ study of sex — the German-born Hungarian nationalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny (born Benkert) coined the term ‘homosexual.’” I had two questions about this: what’s the deal with “Kertbeny (born Benkert),” and did he really coin that word in that year? I am, of course, deeply skeptical of coinage claims, but that one seems to be well founded, though off by a year: German Wikipedia shows an image of a letter of May 8, 1868, in which you can see the words “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual” one after the other. As for the name, he was born Karl-Maria Benkert in Vienna, but the family moved to Budapest when he was a child, and in 1847, “he legally changed his name from Benkert to Karl-Maria Kertbeny (or Károly Mária Kertbeny), a Hungarian name with aristocratic associations.” This raised more questions. Is Kertbeny two syllables or three? I presume it’s based on kert ‘garden,’ but how is it formed? (My first guess was that kert was borrowed from Germanic, since it is reminiscent of garden, but apparently it’s homemade, having “the same root as the verb kerül.”) And what are those aristocratic associations? Any information is welcome, and wild guesses will be enjoyed as always.


  1. Could be either two or three syllables: finally -ny can represent modern -nyi in proper names.

  2. Our mutual friend Wiki explains that Hungarian kertben means “in the garden” with -ben marking the ingressive case. This must have been a source of running jokes of the type “where’s dear Károly?”

  3. So what words demarked homosexual vs heterosexual before the annus mirabilis?; vs bisexual vs transgender vs etc, etc, for that matter.

    You’re not expecting me to believe there was no word for X, surely!?

  4. I don’t think there was an accepted, printable word for X. You had “sodomite” for someone who performed a specific act, but to talk about someone who, you know, swings that way, in polite company you probably would have had to use circumlocutions.

    This appeared around the same time, though:
    so it seems something was in the air.

  5. what words

    The ordinary term then, and for quite some time to come, was, of course, sodomite.

    As Jonathan Ned Katz’s book title cleverly pointed out, scientific sexology could just as well be called, The Invention of Heterosexuality.

    The beginnings of psychology meant a shift in focus from acts to desires.

  6. Indeed, the very thorough OED historical thesaurus does not list any terms before the mid-1800s to describe homosexuality as a tendency, though words for homosexual activities have always been around (including where it was illegal).

    Correction: sodomite has been around since Middle English, for a man who habitually practices anal sex with other men, but that was different from today’s notion of homosexuality as primarily a psychological attraction, with whatever physical manifestations following from it.

  7. I was more meaning in German/Hungarian, since that’s what Kertbeny was writing.

    BTW in the image that Hat links to in German Wikipedia, it looks like the word before “Homosexual” is “Monosexual” — that’s Onanism(?)

    @Y quite, I was asking about the psychological attraction. Both sodomite and Buggery (Act 1533 “pioneered by Henry VIII” says wiki) refer to sexual practices, not restricted to male-on-male.

    Also Lesbian and Sapphic did not acquire a sexual sense until turn of C20th — or at least Classicists could, with plausible deniability, claim they referred to an Island or to poetry. Does lack of a word in C19th explain why no laws were passed against female homosexuality?

  8. In the no word for X category, sex researchers now use the remarkably compositional males who have sex with males (MSM) to denote people who do just that, recognizing that gay and homosexual mean something else (and sodomy and buggery are too old and loaded).

  9. marie-lucie says

    Does lack of a word in C19th explain why no laws were passed against female homosexuality?

    I read that the reason was that Queen Victoria did not think there could be such a thing, and her ministers were reluctant to go into the details to enlighten her.

  10. If sodomy and buggery referred to anal sex with either men or women, then what was used to refer to other kinds of homosexual act? Were they unremarked, unremarkable, or just unspeakable?

  11. @m-l yes I’d heard that and nearly said so. But it appears to be an urban myth Strewth! Started in little ol’ New Zealand.

    You can see wiki on the Labouchere Amendment: late night Parliamentary double-dealing at its worst. No time to consider Her Majesty’s sensitivities.

  12. David Marjanović says

    German has the adjectives schwul and warm for homosexual or homoromantic males. Wiktionary informs me that both go back several hundred years, that schwul is a doublet of schwül “hot and humid” (said of weather) after all, and also that it’s to some extent a reclaimed slur, which I didn’t know; further that it was occasionally extended to women especially in the 1970s, which I also didn’t know (lesbisch and the noun Lesbe are the only options I knew). Warm mostly has connotations of ridicule. As a noun for someone who’s schwul, now that warmer Bruder is apparently extinct (I only know it from reading), the only option that comes to mind is Schwuchtel, which is definitely a slur; it’s in Wiktionary, but no etymology is given.

    Does lack of a word in C19th explain why no laws were passed against female homosexuality?

    Both the lack of a word and the lack of a law are more plausibly explained by the (apparently post-medieval) idea that all women are asexual (and only ever have sex to gain other advantages or because it’s their duty). There are still fundamentalists in the US who actually believe that.

  13. Does lack of a word in C19th explain why no laws were passed against female homosexuality?

    Which country’s laws are we talking about?

    My (admittedly very limited) understanding is that Continental Catholic law, following St. Paul, viewed lesbian behavior as potentially just as bad as male homosexual behavior, and included both under the term “sodomy”. (E.g., Thomas Aquinas: “copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female, as the Apostle states (Rom. I, 27): and this is called the vice of sodomy”.)

    I gather that English law has been less likely to specifically include lesbian acts, possibly because it tended to follow the model of Leviticus, which condemns male homosexual behavior but says nothing about women. Although there was a law in mid-1600s New England (in the New Haven colony) specifically prescribing the death penalty for lesbian acts.

    In any case, the English words “tribade” and “tribadism” certainly existed and were used before and during the 19th Century (although presumably not in Queen Victoria’s hearing; I have heard the same story that marie-lucie mentions, that Queen Victoria refused to sign a particular law punishing lesbian behavior because she didn’t believe it existed.)

    [Edited to add: and I see that AntC has helpfully provided a link debunking the Queen Victoria story…]

  14. David Marjanović says

    Were they unremarked, unremarkable, or just unspeakable?

    Probably both unspeakable and simply unknown to the vast majority of the population.

  15. Yes, I don’t think I was aware of lesbianism until long after I’d learned about the male equivalent. There’s a famous quote by a woman author from when lesbians were first hitting the news to the effect of “But what do they do?,” but I can’t remember the name or the exact wording and so can’t google it.

  16. Victorian lawmakers invented offense of “gross indecency” to cover them.

  17. David Marjanović says

    “Gross indecency” is indeed the offence named in the Labouchere Amendment – where it’s restricted to “[a]ny male person”!

  18. Strewth! Started in little ol’ New Zealand.

    My memory is totally unreliable on this, but somehow I think I heard it before 1977…

  19. -“But what do they do?,”

    As always, the Church knew about sex much more than lawmakers.

    Excerpt from 16th century Russian confession form for nuns

    Rather explicit, I’d say and leaves no doubt whatsoever on how exactly they did it….

  20. Mark Lamas jr.: The Sin of Cunnilingus, an article on the contemporary context for St. Paul’s terminology, showed up on Facebook with Bulbul’s approval a couple of weeks ago. Not exactly about the Victorian Era, but very informative.

  21. About that confession form for nuns. The part on female/female action is rather short compared to cornucopia of female/male interactions. But what “(sic)” stands for in there?

  22. ending omitted – should be de-tsami (abbvreviation of devitsami – with girls), not de-tsa.

    (sic) indicates that the wrong spelling is in the source and it’s not the compiler’s fault

  23. “Monosexual” — that’s Onanism(?)

    Yes. The list also includes Heterogenit for Bestiality.

    Kertbeny also had Normalsexual; I am not quite sure how, if at all, that differed in his scheme from heterosexual.

    The basic principle of this system seems to have been a spectrum of sex-drive, with heterosexual at the highest end. Meaning that homosexual males were thought to have a diminished sex-drive, down toward the female end. And also meaning that heterosexual was by no means limited to healthy sexuality, for a long time.

  24. Some of the stuff in that Russian book is rather unbelievable: How on earth you fornicate with birds?

    Is it even physically possible?

    Also the part where the poor nun confesses in having impure thoughts about fornication with monks, priests, deacons, other men, beasts, stallions, dogs and piglets strikes me as somewhat exaggerated.

  25. How on earth you fornicate with birds?

    Maybe they meant hens and geese?

    strikes me as somewhat exaggerated

    This is probably because confession had to be specific and the author wanted to make sure that sufficient level of specificity has been being reached. And thus it has a bit of an effect of reading a phrasebook like a continuous prose (I have sprained, dislocated, broke an arm, knee, elbow, shoulder).

  26. Kertbeny was born in Vienna of Hungarian parents, so I don’t know if I’d say he’s ‘German-born’. In Hungarian Kertbeny is pronounced as [kɛrtbɛni], but of course with names with older or purposefully dated spelling it’s not always that clear: the surname of the famous painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy is pronounced [moholi] and not [mohoj] as might be expected (Hung. ly is usually [j], but the surname is an adjectival derivation of the name of the Hungarian village of Mohol, now Mol in Serbia), so this is a case where foreigners with no knowledge of Hungarian usually pronounce his surname correctly, whilst those with some knowledge pronounce it incorrectly.

  27. Thank you! I’ve been pronouncing Moholy-Nagy wrong all my life, or at least since I’ve had some knowledge of Hungarian. And of course thanks for answering the Kertbeny question.

  28. George Grady says

    What’s the significance of the superscripted letters scattered throughout the nuns’ confession?

  29. How on earth you fornicate with birds?

    “Lord love a duck” is an expression my grandmother would use in extremis.

    Unlikely she heard it in a 1966 musical, nor reading James Joyce nor even P.G. Wodehouse. (The possible sources google suggested.)

    Another probable urban myth: I thought I’d heard it arose from a C19th prosecution Brown vs Regina.

  30. David Marjanović says

    the superscripted letters

    At least some of them seem to be abbreviations. The whole text is so full of abbreviations that I simply can’t read most of it.

  31. Abbreviations (missing letters) are marked by dashes. Superscript letters are written to shorten the printed line and represent the full spellings. Some filling ins are tricky, but most are pretty transparent.

  32. David M.

    You can’t read that? It’s printed text! 19th century! Piece of cake!

    Now, reading 16th century Russian cursive handwriting, with abbreviations and superscripted letters and all that, that’s a skill Russian philology departments spend years to teach and not all graduates end up mastering it.

  33. Hungarian ly

    I know that in Hungarian final ly is normally [j], as in the name Kodaly, but does anyone know whether it had a different porto-form? more specifically, one including plain [l] followed by a palatalizing element?

  34. David Marjanović says

    “Originally, the digraph letter ly was used to represent the palatal lateral /ʎ/, just as the digraph letter ny is still used to represent the palatal nasal /ɲ/. However, in the eastern dialects as well as in the standard dialect, the phoneme /ʎ/ lost its lateral feature and merged with /j/ (akin to Spanish yeísmo). The Hungarian letter ly came to be pronounced the same as the Hungarian letter j. In the western dialects, /ʎ/ lost its palatal feature and merged with /l/ (alveolar lateral approximant). In the northern dialects, the phoneme /ʎ/ has been preserved.”

    Also, ty and gy are [c] and [ɟ]. I have no idea why the latter isn’t spelled *dy, which would even make more etymological sense as far as I know.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Last time I only got the most explicit part… Some of the letters, mostly but not only superscript ones, are scanned badly enough that they’re just black blotches, and a few letters really are missing next to superscript ones (but also next to r, and apart from the fact that superscript seems to be a way to avoid having to spell the hard sign out); but I think I’ve reached the point that the only remaining obstacle is my limited vocabulary. 🙂

  36. >Kertbeny was born in Vienna of Hungarian parents, so I don’t know if I’d say he’s ‘German-born’.

    Interesting, but it just leads us to the next question – about his Hungarian parents the Benkerts. If Benkert wasn’t an appropriate Hungarian name when he moved back …

  37. marie-lucie says

    David M, Originally, the digraph letter ly was used to represent the palatal lateral /ʎ/…,

    Yes, I understand that, and this also happened in French with the sequence written -ill-. But I was interested in the origin of the palatal lateral, not in its further evolution into [j].

  38. David Marjanović says

    Ah. In part, it goes back to Proto-Uralic sounds one of which may have been [lʲ], IIRC. The remaining occurrences are from /l/ in front-vowel words, though that process has long ceased to be productive.

  39. Danke!

  40. David Marjanović says

    Bitte. 🙂

  41. Kertbeny was born in Vienna of Hungarian parents, so I don’t know if I’d say he’s ‘German-born’.

    I see your concern, but at the same time I’d guard against a projection of the 1871 Kleindeutschland concept into the past – something which happens a lot in online historical discussions. When Kertbeny was born, Vienna was part of the German Confederation, and no less German than anywhere else.

  42. I think the point is that it seems misleading to describe an ethnic Hungarian, born in Austria-Hungary, as “German-born.”

  43. But he wasn’t born in Austria-Hungary, and he was born in Germany.

  44. In his §143 letter, he does say, “we Germans.”

  45. ly being from a separate Proto-Uralic *ľ is an old enough theory to be probably called the traditional view, but unfortunately this is not backed up by substantial data. The best native examples tend to have dialectal variants galore: thus e.g. *peljä ‘ear’, normally also reconstructed with a cluster *lj and not *ľ, gives both standard fül and nonstandard füly (plus variants differing in their vowel quality); or *mälkə ‘breast’ both standard mell and nonstandard mely, mej. The current situation is kind of a limbo: PU *ľ is no longer widely accepted, but no new detailed theory on the origin of the few errant cases of apparently inherited non-dialectal palatal laterals (such as harkály ‘woodpecker’) has been put together either.

    The digraph gy has been basically adopted through Latin. In oldest Hungarian from the 10th to 13th centuries, /ɟ/ (or perhaps still /dʑ/ at this time?) was spelled as ‹g›, and once the digraph conventions were established later on, this naturally led to gy. Meanwhile c was taken up for the affricate /ts/ instead, and there would be no precedent for a ˣky from anywhere, so it’s easy to see why /c/ ended up as ty. It may be also relevant that, in an interesting asymmetry from its voiced counterpart, pre-Hungarian *ć /tɕ/ ends up as modern cs /tʃ/ and not ty.

  46. David Marjanović says

    Thanks. I was also wondering about the two PU *d phonemes, but may have misremembered their correspondences (as far as I ever knew them in the first place).

  47. Palatal *ď gives gy regularly, though there’s some reason to think that this went through an earlier *ľ stage (which would mean ly would have to be of more recent origin): e.g. there are cases with *l or *lj > gy, such as vagy- ‘to be’, negy ‘4’ (cf. Finnish ole-, neljä).

    (That’s the standard view, anyway. I have a few modifications underway for this…)

  48. “Lord love a duck” is an expression my grandmother would use in extremis.

    From “Golden The Ship Was — Oh! Oh! Oh!”, Cordwainer Smith’s tale of how “Raumsog […] brought his whole world to a death of cancer and volcanoes, because the Golden Ship struck once.”

    Prince Lovaduck had obtained his odd name because he had had a Chinesian ancestor who did love ducks, ducks in their Peking form — succulent duck skins brought forth to him ancestral dreams of culinary ecstasy.

    His ancestress, an English lady, had said, “Lord Lovaduck, that fits you!” and the name had been proudly taken as a family name. Lord Lovaduck had a small ship. The ship was tiny and had a very simple and threatening name: Anybody.


  1. […] Hat considers the origins of the family name of Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny, the man who developed the term […]

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