When Is Masturbation Onanism? (When It Makes the News.)

A Blog About Language
Jan. 29 2014 3:56 PM

When Is Masturbation Onanism? (When It Makes the News.)

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Vincent Wade gets onanistic.

Yesterday morning, a 34-year-old man named Vincent Wade made a series of bad decisions. The first was to take an as-yet-unidentified narcotic, well before noon, and the second was to get behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry. A third bad decision occurred after Wade drove into a street pole outside of Crown Fried Chicken in North Philadelphia. He emerged from the car, stripped down to his ankles, and began touching himself suggestively. All of which was reported on Philly.com under the headline:

Man crashes, gets naked and onanistic
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Cut to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster.com, who wondered why people were suddenly looking up the definition of "onanistic" in great numbers online, which explains the collective cry of "Oh, dear!" heard throughout our land.

Onan, second son of Judah, has a brief but tragic cameo early on in the Bible. After the death of his older brother Er, Onan was put in a difficult position by his father. As told in Genesis 38: 8-10 (NIV):

Then Judah said to Onan, "Sleep with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord's sight;

Poor guy was put to death for pulling out. Or at least that's how some interpreted those verses, concluding that ejaculation not for the purpose of procreation was punishable by righteous execution. And so, as the Oxford Companion to the Bible explains, the passage is:

employed by some to indicate divine condemnation of autoeroticism. This interpretation, however, completely misses the point of the passage. Onan's sin was not sexual. Rather, it was his refusal to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage, according to which a man was obligated to impregnate the wife of his brother if his brother had died without an heir, thus ensuring the continuation of his brother's line and inheritance.

Nevertheless, onanism became a synonym for masturbation, appearing in English as early as the 1700s when a publisher named Edmund Curll issued a number of risqué titles that were deemed pornographic. Curll, in his own defense, circulated a pamphlet arguing otherwise. Onanism Display'd, he wrote, was an "Enquiry into the true Nature of Onan's Sin," a scientific study "of Self-Pollution, its Causes and Consequences; with three extraordinary Cases of two Gentlemen and a young Lady, who were very much addicted to this Crime."

Oh, really? "Extraordinary," you say? Mr. Curll meet Mr. Wade:

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

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