The Lexicographical Lesbian: Remaking the Body in Anne Lister's Erotic Glossary

Turton, Stephen 

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In recent years, literary criticism has witnessed a flourishing of what Paula Blank presciently called ‘etymological moments’: playful tracings of the roots of words that unearth unexpected links between the past and the present, and in so doing unsettle our certainties about both. Many of these moments have occurred under the rubric of queer philology, which has particularly called into question scholarly assumptions about the historical transmission of discourses on gender, sexuality, and embodiment. However, this impulse to reclaim the discursive history of the sexed and sexual body is not new. Between 1814 and 1820, the Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister—now famous for her diary’s candid accounts of her love affairs with women—pored through English, Latin, and Greek dictionaries, looking up terms for sexual acts and anatomies and collating what she found into a personal glossary. Lister’s citing and rewriting of these definitions illuminates the protean forms that a dictionary can take for its writers and users: a source of knowledge, a moral guide, and even an erotic aid. Through lexicography, Lister found new ways of reading the body and reimagining its borders, the better to fit the contours of her own desires.

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47 Language, Communication and Culture, 4705 Literary Studies
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The Review of English Studies: the leading journal of English literature and language
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Oxford University Press (OUP)