SEX IN THE DICTIONARY.

Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has a nice piece in Slate, “Can a Woman ‘Prong’ a Man? Why it’s so hard to put sex in the dictionary. It starts off with a great anecdote:

In 1966, Jess Stein, the editor-in-chief of the major Random House Dictionary of the English Language, told the New York Times about a meeting he convened with the company’s editorial and sales staff to discuss the words cunt and fuck. “When I uttered the words there was a shuffling of feet, and a wave of embarrassment went through the room,” he said. “That convinced me the words did not belong in the dictionary, though I’m sure I’ll be attacked as a prude for the decision.”
Stein did not have to wait long to be proven right on the last point: A mere two weeks later, the Times‘ own book reviewer wrote, “Unfortunately, a stupid prudery has prevented the inclusion of probably the most widely-used word in the English language. The excuse here, no doubt, is ‘good taste’; but in a dictionary of this scope and ambition the omission seems dumb and irresponsible.”

Needless to say, I agree with the reviewer, but the idea of the Times, one of the most prudish publications on the face of the earth, making that particular complaint is pretty hilarious. (It must have taken considerable restraint on Jesse’s part not to point that out; I am incapable of such restraint.) Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there (and, of course, lots of swear words).

Comments

  1. Bill Walderman says:

    “probably the most widely-used word in the English language”
    More widely used than “the”?

  2. More widely used than “the”?
    If by “widely-used” they mean “used with the widest range of applications”, then yeah, probably.

  3. I had this Serbian student who once explained to me why the words for cunt, fuck, dick etc couldn’t be found in the dictionary: “It is because everybody knows these words, thus there is no need for them to be in the dictionary.”
    Ole Stig Andersen
    Denmark’s Language Museum
    http://www.sprogmuseet.dk

  4. Nathan Bailey’s major Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730 included the odd note that it was “a term used of a goat,” perhaps in an effort to make it seem less offensive.
    More aegophobic tyrants.

  5. Nathan Bailey’s major Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730 included the odd note that it was “a term used of a goat,” perhaps in an effort to make it seem less offensive.
    More aegophobic tyrants.

  6. I’m guessing, in the anticipation of a comfortable dictionary, that “sex” is after “mattress”, and that “treatment” comes, sadly but wisely, after both “gonorrhea” and “syphilis”, “alcohol” having come long before “prophylaxis”.

  7. Do we agree with Sheidlower’s statement that the Oxford Latin Dictionary’s definition of irrumo (ultimately “to practise the action of one who submits to fellatio”) “is completely wrong”? His explanation of the word completely matches my own understanding — and I would have said that the OLD’s definition “is completely right.” Am I missing something?
    (Admittedly, a fuller explanation of the term would have made clear that in Latin, both partners can be considered “active” — one irrumating, one fellating — whereas in ordinary English only the fellator is considered “active”; but that sort of explanation seems like too much to expect from a dictionary, no?)

  8. What is the opposite of “prude”? Does it retain as much the aura of positive connotation as its spinster opposite does the demoded?

  9. @Ran: It’s possible that I’m misreading the language of OLD, but to me, _to submit to fellatio_ does not mean ‘to be willing to have one’s penis sucked’, it means ‘to be willing to perform fellatio on a man’. I acknowledge that ‘active’ could refer either to the performing of fellatio or to the receiving of it, I suppose.
    But an irrumator is not one who passively allows himself to be fellated. Thus even if _to submit to fellatio_ _does_ mean ‘to be willing to have one’s penis sucked’, it’s still wrong, in that it misrepresents the fact that to irrumate refers to aggressively forcing oneself orally upon someone, not lying back and taking it.

  10. WARNING: This piece contains vulgar language—lots and lots of it—that may be inappropriate for children or the faint of heart.
    I don’t understand this. If there’s anything that’s appropriate for children over about five-years-old it’s vulgar language.

  11. WARNING: This piece contains vulgar language—lots and lots of it—that may be inappropriate for children or the faint of heart.
    I don’t understand this. If there’s anything that’s appropriate for children over about five-years-old it’s vulgar language.

  12. “Should this definition refer to the quarterback as ‘he or she’ to be inclusive?”
    Another question is whether the editors of a dictionary have a policy to simply report and define a new usage or if they might decide to actually use it themselves. Would a dictionary consider using singular ‘they’ in the above example, for instance?

  13. “Should this definition refer to the quarterback as ‘he or she’ to be inclusive?”
    Another question is whether the editors of a dictionary have a policy to simply report and define a new usage or if they might decide to actually use it themselves. Would a dictionary consider using singular ‘they’ in the above example, for instance?

  14. Scrupts
    A feature of the civilization of the Ardrites, of the planet Enteropia, plays a significant role in their cultural life. See SCRUPTURE.
    Scrupture
    The act of scrupturing, the state of being scruptured, the product of (see) scruption.
    Scruption
    An activity or condition of the Ardrites, of the planet Enteropia. See SCRUPTS.

  15. Garrison’s Student’s Catullus and Sheidlower’s clarification on this thread agree with each other.
    Part of Garrison’s note to line 1 of Cat. 16 (pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo) reads: “pedicabo … irrumabo: inflict anal and oral sex upon. [...] Pedicare means to b*gger; irrumare means to force a person to perform oral sex (fellatio).”
    I think this collocation (by Catullus, as explicated by Garrison) makes clear that the ‘performance’ of oral sex, in the case of fellating an irrumator, is passive, not active, and that the irrumator is not “the one who submits”, but rather one who compels submission.
    That ‘performing oral sex’ can be an aggressive, controlling act is not ruled out by the case of irrumare, but ‘irrumation’ is distinctly ‘the forcing, one way or another, of a penis into a mouth’.

  16. John Emerson says:

    By contrast, the Greeks had 97 different words for fellatio.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    More widely used than “the”?

    Fucking yes!

  18. Chuck Filmore, linguist at UCB, had a great anecdote about a paper of his on the syntactic structure of “to fuck”. The verb apparently is host to a unique family of syntactical behaviors, the only verb in the English language to do certain things. (Sorry, it’s been years since I read the paper. Just know that “fuck” works differently than other verbs in English and be on the look out for interesting usages!)
    Anyway, Chuck was very decorous in his writing and never mentioned the actual word, or he did once and only once and then wrote that he would politely use the term “to blank” throughout the paper rather than subject readers to repeated usage of profanity, etc. This had the unfortunate effect of creating a (rather small) misunderstanding about the English language among some non-English linguists. When the paper was reviewed in a Japanese journal, the reviewer stated that only two verbs in English exhibited the syntactical behavior under discussion: to fuck and to blank.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    More aegophobic tyrants.
    Or just very, very fond of them.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    Mr. Sheidlower notes the deliberate omission from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, but fails to take advantage of the opportunity to tell the anecdote thus set up (copied from wikiquote, which helpfully traces it to a quite posthumous source so we can draw our own conclusions about historicity):
    Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister, Mrs. Brooke, they were every now and then honoured by the visits of Dr. Johnson. He called on them one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’ said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.
    H.D. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897) vol. II, page 390, edited by George Birkbeck Hill

  21. Siganus Sutor says:

    There’s a guy who started a collection of typical Ma.r.tian words and expressions, and while discussing it with a variety of people he has been very surprised to discover that words like “bréner” (to masturbate) or “difoute” (sperm) were very often unknown to “girls” — including grown-ups who’d had their 50th birthday ten years before. That was quite a shock.

  22. “whereas in ordinary English only the fellator is considered “active”
    Au contraire, dear Ran. English has the term “skull fuck” and it very definitely implies “active”.

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