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.

These days, most dictionaries have broadened their treatment of sexual intercourse. They acknowledge that while the term usually refers to the penetration of the penis into the vagina, it can also be used to describe other genital contact, using expressions like "genital contact," "penetration," and the like to allow for the possibility of acts such as anal sex. But even these definitions are restricted, which is appropriate; oral sex, or masturbation, wouldn't normally be considered "sexual intercourse." The problem arises when these same dictionaries then define the word fuck (and other sexual terms) in relation to "sexual intercourse," because the word fuck is itself much broader than even these broadened definitions.

Thus, you can't fuck someone in the ass with a dildo, according to the current edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Webster's New World Dictionary. The whore in Portnoy's Complaint "who fucks the curtain with her bare twat" can't do that, according to American Heritage, Webster's New World, Random House, or Encarta. Lesbians can't fuck each other at all, according to Webster's New World and Encarta (though if they use a strap-on, Encarta becomes OK with it). Fucking a woman's breasts is only possible according to Merriam-Webster. Finger-fucking and fist-fucking are impossible according to Webster's New World, Random House, and American Heritage; Merriam allows it, but only if it's vaginal and not anal. Only the OED, whose entry for the word I edited, defines fuck to encompass sexual acts beyond "sexual intercourse." The new edition of my book The F-Word goes into even more detail about the possibilities.

These problems have been recognized among linguists for some time. A famous 1971 essay  by "Munç Wang" (a pseudonym of the syntactician Avery Andrews) discussed in tongue-in-cheek but linguistically accurate detail the syntax of sexual terms. Wang explored the syntactic constraints of various words and constructions, examining whether the object of a sexual thrust has to be an orifice, if it can be artificial, if "the orifice must be vaginoid," and whether the object must be animate. Numerous sentences are offered up for analysis of their grammaticality: "Fred fucked the log through a hole that squirrels had made," "The Wizard balled the witch's body," "Jack buggered Captain Bligh in a surgically created false cunt."

Such sentences are, understandably, rare in the real world, but Wang's essay itself can be quoted, a boon to lexicographers. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I will die with a certain measure of satisfaction knowing that I put the sentence "Butch fucked the mannikin through the hole he drilled in its crotch" into the Oxford English Dictionary. But almost 40 years on, most dictionaries still lack this element of comprehensiveness.

Dictionaries can also be very out of date when it comes to established words whose meanings change. If you ask most younger people what a ménage à trois is, they'd probably tell you that it's a threesome, i.e., a single sexual encounter involving three people. But the OED is the only dictionary to include this sense; the others all have only the original meaning, a household made up of three people in a sexual relationship. (Indeed, the sexual sense of threesome is absent from Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Webster's New World, Random House, and, sadly if temporarily, the OED; only Encarta includes it.)

Dictionary editors have made greater efforts in recent years to ensure that definitions and example sentences don't reflect stereotypes—to eliminate phrases such as "doctors and their wives," for example. In some cases, these efforts have improved the accuracy of sexual definitions. As we've seen, the earliest modern dictionary definition of fuck allows the active role to be performed only by a man; a woman can't fuck. Since then, dictionaries have taken a broader view.

But not all uses are this clear. Can a woman ball a man? Can she prong him? (Wearing a strap-on, presumably.) Can she prong another woman? If it's only theoretical, how hard must you search to try to find a concrete example of a female pronger? This may seem pointlessly silly—all the more so when you learn that the very earliest example of the sexual sense of prong, from a privately printed collection of limericks, features a female pronger, a noblewoman who prongs her "wenches" with her 6-inch clitoris.

However, the issues raised—how much attention must be paid to unusual uses? how should we cover stereotypes?—are very real and must be dealt with every day by dictionary editors. Whether the question is "Can a woman rail her boyfriend?" or "Should this definition refer to the quarterback as 'he or she' to be inclusive?", the decisions have real ramifications. But while it can be stressful deciding how exactly to put sex in the dictionary, it's not without rewards: It's certainly much more fun than worrying about pesky sound changes in Middle English diphthongs.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.