The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Homophobia’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

When the word ‘homophobia’ was first invented, it didn’t mean what it means now. Instead, it had a different meaning. To discover the origins of the term ‘homophobia’, we have to delve into the etymology of the world, examine a small amount of Latin and less Greek, and discover how the word was, in effect, coined twice: the first being a false start, the second representing a change in attitude in wider society.

But first, a quick question: when the word ‘homophobia’ was first used in 1901, what did it mean? Fear of homosexuality, or fear of gay people?

No. Wrong.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides two entries for the word ‘homophobia’. The first of these can be traced back to 1901, and is marked as ‘rare’ by the editors. In 1901, the Des Moines Daily News in Iowa included an article which stated, ‘Young women of America have homophobia, you know, just as children have measles.’

By this, the author did not mean that young American women have an irrational hatred of gay people. Instead, this ‘homophobia’ – the earliest use of the word on record – is an irregular formation based on the ancient Greek suffix -phobia (denoting an irrational fear or hatred) and the Latin homo, meaning ‘man’, as in homo sapiens (which literally means ‘wise man’). So the author of the article meant that young American women have a fear of men, or of the male sex.

In 1920, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature also used the word, again with the meaning of ‘hatred of men or the male sex’: ‘Her salient characteristic was a contempt for the male sex as represented in the human biped […] The seeds of homophobia had been sown early.’

As previously noted, one of the striking things about this initial attempt to get the word ‘homophobia’ into wider use is that its etymology combines Greek and Latin elements. Such formations are relatively rare, and are often scorned by purists and classicists, because they combine classical Greek and Latin elements. But if we’re going to throw out such words, we must also shun ‘television’, ‘bigamy’, ‘genocide’, ‘petroleum’, and ‘automobile’, all of which are similarly formed from a combination of Greek and Latin.

Curiously enough, the word ‘homosexual’ is another word which initially annoyed the etymological purists, being half-Greek and half-Latin: homo is from the Greek for ‘same’, while sexual is Latin.

And that brings us to the later coinage, or re-coinage, of ‘homophobia’.

In 1969, the American magazine Screw, which specialises in what we might euphemistically describe as ‘gentlemen’s special interest’ – titillation aimed at heterosexual men – included an article which used the word ‘homophobia’. But although the word was used this time in reference to homosexuality (so homo- as in the Greek for ‘same’, as in ‘same sex’, rather than homo as in the Latin for ‘man’, as it had been used in the 1901 Des Moines Daily News article), the word still didn’t carry its modern meaning.

Here, instead, the word ‘homophobia’ was used to refer to a fear of being thought homosexual oneself: as the author of the article explained, glossing a word which they must have realised would be new and unfamiliar to their readers, homophobia is ‘an intense and neurotic fear of being thought attracted to one’s own sex’. The OED also marks this sense of the word as ‘rare’.

That Screw article appeared in May 1969. Instead, we have to wait until October 1969 to find the first truly modern use of the word, to mean hostility towards homosexual people or to homosexuality in general. The suffix -phobia, which in the Screw article more clearly relates to a fear or neurosis, has come to mean ‘hostility’ or ‘hatred’ by the time the word appeared in Time magazine on 31 October 1969: ‘Such homophobia […] involves innumerable misconceptions and oversimplifications.’

The gay liberation movement in the US in the late 1960s had helped to put the word ‘homophobia’ into general circulation, and people such as George Weinberg would popularise it further in the 1970s as awareness of gay rights issues spread in the US and elsewhere. The adjective ‘homophobic’ and the noun ‘homophobe’ followed in 1971, and now the word is widely used and understood.

But its curious origins reveal several attempts to get the word in print over half a century before, with a quite different meaning – all based on the different meaning of homo in Greek and Latin.