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What is the origin of the word schwuler?

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What Does the Word “Schwuler” Mean? A Linguistic and Cultural Journey

If you’re learning German, you may have come across the word “schwuler” and wondered what it means. Depending on the context, it can refer to a gay man, a homosexual relationship, or just something that is weak or effeminate. However, like many words, “schwuler” has a history that reflects both the evolution of the language and the social attitudes towards gender and sexuality.

To understand the origin of “schwuler,” we need to go back to its etymology. According to the Duden dictionary, “schwül” means “stormy, sultry, oppressive” and comes from the Middle Low German swōl, swūl. This word is related to swelen, which means “to roast, to burn” and may stem from the same root as the English word “swelter.” In any case, the original sense of “schwül” was not related to sexuality at all, but rather to weather conditions or psychological moods.

The shift towards a gay-related meaning occurred in the 20th century, especially in urban slang. However, this development did not happen overnight or uniformly. In his book “The Pink Dictionary: Words, Phrases, and Expressions of Gay Life,” Robert Aldrich describes how the word “schwul” was used in early gay literature and poetry in different ways. Sometimes it referred to a passive or submissive role in sex, sometimes to the desires and feelings of a gay man, and sometimes to the whole identity of the person. What is clear is that “schwul” was used as a marker of difference, of a subculture that had its own norms and values.

The cultural context of this emergence is crucial to understanding why “schwul” became a charged and somewhat controversial term. In Germany, as in other countries, homosexuality was long criminalized and pathologized as a mental disorder. Even after the Nazi era, which persecuted and murdered countless LGBT people, the legal and societal discrimination persisted. It was only in 1969 that homosexuality was decriminalized in the Federal Republic of Germany, but it took until 1994 for the age of consent to be equalized and until 2001 for same-sex partnerships to be legalized (and another 13 years for full marriage equality).

Given this history, it’s no wonder that “schwul” could be used as a slur or a marker of stigma. In the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, some gay activists tried to reclaim and redefine the word as a positive and empowering term. They used it in slogans such as “Schwule sind überall” (“Gays are everywhere”) or “Ich bin schwul und das ist gut” (“I’m gay and that’s good”). However, not everyone agreed with this strategy or felt comfortable using “schwul” in their everyday language. Some preferred expressions such as “homosexuell,” “lesbisch,” or “queer” that were less connotative or ambiguous.

Another aspect of the cultural context is the relationship between “schwul” and masculinity. As mentioned before, the word can also mean something weak or unmanly, and thus clash with the traditional norms of masculinity that valorize toughness, strength, and dominance. This tension is not unique to German, of course, but reflects a broader social pattern. In patriarchal societies, any deviation from the norm of heterosexuality and heteronormativity tends to be seen as a threat to the hierarchy and the stability of gender roles. By calling someone “schwul,” one could not only imply that they were sexually deviant, but also that they were deficient in some way as men (or women, depending on the gender identity). Therefore, “schwul” can carry not only a sexual or romantic connotation, but also a social or political one.

How far the word “schwul” has come from its original meaning of “sultry” or “impetuous”! Yet, this transformation also shows how language is not a fixed or isolated entity, but rather a dynamic and interconnected one. The usage of “schwul” reflects not only the history of German linguistics, but also the history of German society and culture, especially in the LGBT context. This word can still spark debates and emotions, depending on who uses it, in what context, and with what intention. However, it is also a reminder that language can be a vehicle of resistance, creativity, and diversity, even in the face of adversity.


The word “schwuler,” though relatively new in its current meaning, has a complex and fascinating history that sheds light on the intersection of language, culture, and social movements. Whether you are a German learner, a linguist, or an LGBT advocate, understanding the etymology and usage of “schwuler” can deepen your knowledge and empathy for the rich and diverse human experience. As we continue to navigate the challenges of our world, let us remember that words matter, and that they can both reflect and shape our perceptions of ourselves and others.