Friday, August 2, 2013

Last Words

By Jean Roberta

It's always a challenge to post the last word on a topic that has been discussed here for two weeks/a fortnight.

Like Lily Harlem, I'm fond of the venerable word cunt, and I planned to mention it in the title of this post, but I think Lily has covered it, so to speak.

Then there is "fuck," which was thoroughly explained by Desiree Holt. There are several alternative theories about where this word comes from. Some say it is derived from the Latin infinitive futuere (to fuck), but other linguists claim that a "t" sound doesn't usually change to a "k" sound in English. The theory I favour is that it derives from "Found Under Carnal Knowledge" as a legal term, used in court cases (e.g. found guilty of adultery or some other form of illicit sex).

In the unenlightened era when I was a teenager, many of the 600,000 words in the English language were forbidden by all the authorities, or at least this is what I was led to believe. This was not only because some words referred to unmentionable activities (sex and bodily functions). My parents were academics in a time and place when people who read books and knew words of more than one syllable were suspected of being Communists, which meant they were not real Americans. I was even told that my parents had an "accent." (My mother grew up on the east coast of the U.S., so she could have sounded strangely eastern, with a lingering trace of New Yorkese, to western ears. My father grew up on the west coast, so how he could have acquired a foreign accent, I don't know.)

Words are powerful. My classmates were curious about sex and all the words that referred to it, and they knew I came from a family that wasn't ashamed to own a few dictionaries. (In Redneck Country, guns are more acceptable.) So I was asked what certain words meant, and I felt I had to live up to my image by looking them up. Then when I explained the meanings of "bad" words, the questioners looked shocked, as though I must have done the deed in order to understand the word for it.

Some of the words our parents (even mine, who were more conservative than I realized at the time) didn't want us to say out loud circulated in corrupted form. One of these words was "morphadite," as in "Why are you wearing a necklace, Billy-Bob? You turning into a morphadite?" I could never find it in a dictionary, so I assumed it was made up by someone who needed a word meaning "freak" to enforce gender norms. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered the original form of the word, "hermaphrodite," with a colourful history in Greek mythology. Literally, the word defines a god and a goddess fused into one person, which sounds glamorous, though it also suggests various scary jokes about people who can't resist "joining" in sex, and are then stuck--usually because they used glue instead of lubricant.

In some situations, I suspect a "morphadite" in the past would have been called something with "trans" in it (transgendered, transexual, transwoman or transman) in the present. On that note, food commercials that brag about the lack of harmful "trans-fat" in particular items bring a smirk to my face. (And in any case, some transfolk of my acquaintance seem to have no fat of any kind. I know a transwoman who is not much younger than I am. Unlike me, however, she is 6 feet tall, rail-thin and usually seen wearing a miniskirt that shows off thighs with absolutely no lumpy cellulite on them. My cis-gendered female thighs have not fared so well.)

Words derived from Greek or Latin roots fascinated me in my youth because they came from cultures in which, apparently, there were no "bad" words at all. ("Julius, please refrain from expectorating in public. And try not to become as intoxicated tonight as you did last night. You urinated and defecated on the clean floor.") Note that there is still no standard English equivalent of "futuere." (Futuo, ergo sum = I fuck, therefore I am.)

Before I started writing erotica, I especially liked fellatio (from the Latin verb fellare, “to suck”), and cunnilinus (from Neo-Latin cunnus, “vulva,” plus lingua, “tongue”). I liked the words for themselves, and then I was intrigued by the activities they defined. The problem with such terms is that I could never seriously imagine using them in a conversation. (“Sir, if you would be gracious enough to perform cunnilingus on me, I will return the favour by performing fellatio on you.”)

The English language is full of synonyms, but sometimes that means a writer has half-a-dozen unsatisfying choices, unless one leaps into metaphor. (Hemingway's line "The earth moved" probably seemed like a classy way to convey the impact of an orgasm when it was first read.)

Vulgarity (the culture of the common people) can be a good thing. If two or more people want to fuck, they call it fucking, and they enjoy the word as well as the deed, no one but a sour prude could object (unless fucking produces negative consequences, but that is a different plot-point). My problem with vulgarity is that, in my experience, it has often been associated with willful ignorance, anti-intellectualism, hysterical patriotism and disapproval of reality. And some vulgar terms (like "morphadite") are as clear as mud.

Consider the earthy alternatives to fellatio (noun) and to fellate (verb). When I first heard of a "blow job," I was bewildered. The term suggested Louis Armstrong with his lips around a trumpet. "Blowing" in that sense is exactly opposite to "blowing" a man's cock. The two activities could both be described as art forms, but they require different skills. When I want to describe someone giving oral pleasure to a man in a contemporary story, the "blower" just sucks the guy off.

Victorian slang in the right context (historical erotica) is fabulous for describing sex. I prefer the word frig to “finger-fuck,” and I’ve used it several times, even in stories set in the here and now. I could have sworn that “frig” only means that and nothing else, but The Free Dictionary disagrees with me:

The French-flavoured gamahouche or gamahuche (a verb referring to cunnilingus)seems to have died out before World War I (What? No gamahouching in French bordellos during the war??). Unfortunately, it really only works in historical erotica now, and it probably needs a footnote.

While I'm lingering in the nineteenth century, sexual terms from that time seem to follow the pattern of personifying whole demographics with particular names. For example, the African-American communtiy was referred to in newspapers as "Rastus and Beulah," while the horde of Irish immigrants who escaped the famine in their country by coming to America was "Bridget and Paddy." D.H. Lawrence followed this tradition in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)by making the vulgar (working-class) hero, Mellors, name his cock "John Thomas." (Mellors gives the cunt of Lady Chatterley the name "Lady Jane.") The lower-case term "johnson" for a man's cock seems to derive from this traditon of personal naming, but it raises a question: if Mr. Jackson has a johnson, does Mr. Johnson have a jackson?

All these terms have a certain cuteness, but if not all readers are likely to understand them, footnoted explanations are likely to interrupt the flow of the action. It's a dilemma.

Some of the best definitions of "dirty words" are pictures. I always thought the term "69" was a clear-enough definition of a sexual position, but I had to explain it several times to curious friends back in the day. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

A French painter and commercial artist, "Paul Avril" (1849-1928) illustrated several positions and activities in illustrations for disreputable books of his time.

The art of writing about sex requires using a word with the right flavour for a particular narrator in a particular scene, but beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Since I started writing in this genre and sharing ideas with other erotic writers, I've adopted the policy of "Never say never." No word can be defined as a straightforward insult in all contexts, or a straightforward compliment.

My taste in sex-words will probably change over time. As a writer, I just hope I can keep up with the zeitgeist and not become completely incomprehensible while I'm still writing. In that case, I would be screwed.


  1. I've always loved "gamahuche". It's a shame that if you were to use it today, you'd probably be met with blank stares.

    Your post reminded me of the song from "Hair" (showing my age here):

    Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
    Can be fun
    Join the holy orgy, Kama Sutra

    (Now I'll probably have that running through my head for the rest of the evening.)

  2. Oh, and I'd never heard of Paul Avril. Classic!

  3. love this post, Jean. let's start a movement to bring "gamahuche" back. as a reader of Victorian erotica, i've seen many variations for this word. i'm going back to the Pearl to take a look ;)

  4. I didn't know hair had that song in it. That's pretty amazing for that time.

    Hi Jean!

    I've used gamahouche in a story, it has that wonderfully convoluted sound that makes you want to find a home for it. Since the days when kids asked you the meaning of words, I wonder if vulgarity has lost its power now that it has become so common place. More and more words are losing their power. Which I guess makes words like gamahouche so much better. It sounds shocking because one doesn't now what it means.



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