Why it's so hard to put sex in the dictionary.

Language and how we use it.
Oct. 1 2009 11:27 AM

Can a Woman "Prong" a Man?

Why it's so hard to put sex in the dictionary.

1_123125_122953_2214105_2227970_090910_gw_dictionarytn

WARNING: This piece contains vulgar language—lots and lots of it—that may be inappropriate for children or the faint of heart.

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."

With the advantage of hindsight, Stein may seem priggish. But dictionary editors throughout history would sympathize. Figuring out how to put sex in the dictionary—which terms to include and how to define them—is actually one of the most challenging tasks we face.

Advertisement

The 1960s actually marked the end of a long drought in the inclusion of sexual terms in dictionaries. The word fuck is first found in a dictionary in 1598, when it was one of five synonyms given to translate the Italian word fottere (the others were jape, sard, swive,and occupy). It is included in several other dictionaries throughout the 17th and 18th centuries (though not in that of Samuel Johnson, who made a conscious decision to keep out such material); 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. The last general dictionary to include the word was the 1775 New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language by Baptist preacher John Ash; the word is still found in the 1795 edition.

But after that, thanks to the public prudishness that characterized the Victorian era and lasted well beyond it, it was to be 170 years before fuck was again put into a general dictionary: In 1965, the British Penguin English Dictionary included the term, and its entire treatment read, "(vulg) (of males) have sexual intercourse (with)."

One major problem dictionary editors face in defining sexual terms is deciding how explicit to be. Defining coitus as "an act of sexual intercourse" but leaving sexual intercourse undefined, for example (on the grounds that a reader could figure it out from the definitions of sexual and intercourse), would be a problem, not only because it makes the reader do too much page-flipping but also because the definitions probably still won't be sufficiently clear.

Such evasive definitions aren't confined to English dictionaries. In the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the word irrumo is defined "[t]o practise irrumatio on." Great. Irrumatio, less than helpfully, is "[t]he action of an irrumator." We finally learn that an irrumator is "[o]ne who submits to fellatio." And thus, after flipping your way through three different entries, you get a definition that, while described precisely enough (and better than its counterpart in the main Victorian Latin dictionary, "to commit beastly acts"), is completely wrong. An irrumator is the active, not the passive, participant. The real meaning of irrumo is something like "to fuck (someone) in the face, esp. as a way of asserting dominance"; it is frequently found in the locker-room talk of Catullus and also appears in Martial's scurrilous epigrams.

Even when the definitions of sexual terms are clear, they can often omit important aspects of the meaning. Homosexual practices have been notoriously poorly treated until quite recently. There was a controversy earlier this year when conservatives realized that Merriam-Webster had included a definition of marriage reading "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage." (This definition had been added years before, and many other dictionaries include similar treatments, but Merriam got singled out anyway.) And marriage is an obvious place to remember to be inclusive; sexual terms are less so. A definition for sixty-nine reading "simultaneous fellatio and cunnilingus by two partners" (from the Random House College Dictionary, an older edition) omits the possibility of a homosexual sixty-nine.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Oct. 20 2014 6:49 PM God’s Oligarch One of Vladimir Putin’s favorite businessmen wants to start an Orthodox Christian Fox News and return Russia to its glorious czarist past.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 6:48 PM Apple: Still Enormously Profitable
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.