Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's About Sex

One of the unfortunate things about our cultural obsession with sex is that we've invented too many euphemisms, innuendos, and synonyms for matters sexual. As a result, you can be chatting along and suddenly find yourself betrayed into an unintended sexual reference. Here are just a few off-the-cuff examples that come to mind.

"Yeah, our camping experience was a great time for bonding. We ate together, worked together, fished together, told stories together, slept together--" Ooops, Didn't mean that. And what a dumb euphemism, since sleeping is the furthest thing from two people's minds when they are, um, well, "having relations."

That brings up a problem with the English language. We have only one non-slang, transitive, active verb for having sex, and that's the popular four-letter one that is considered crude and formerly taboo in company. There was a socially acceptable transitive verb arising from middle English, swive, but it has long been obsolete.

And we lose perfectly good words to sexual meanings. "We have an intimate relationship," used to mean you were very close. Now, people assume you mean you're skin diving. And take the word "intercourse," which means "communication." You can read nineteenth-century novels and find statements such as, "I learned little about the forest from my daily intercourse with Jane," and you might think you're not reading a G-rated novel after all. But the damage to the word is the result of laziness. The expression, "sexual intercourse" (sexual communication = having sex) was truncated to just "intercourse" and a very useful word was lost to us forever, except as a sort of euphemism.

Another interesting betrayal of language occurred in radio advertising. A Los Angeles car dealer's ads touted the low prices of the cars, and finished each ad with the promise of a great deal, concluding with "And remember, Nick can't say no." Then, Nick decided to let his daughter do some of the spots, so the ads concluded with, "And remember, Elizabeth can't say no." It wasn't but a month or two before the dealer realized that when it's said that a woman "can't say no," it means that she is, um, promiscuous.

Now there is another word, just like "intercourse," that we have lost to sex. The actual meaning of "promiscuous" is "not discriminating" or "not choosy," "indiscriminate." But now it just means slutty.

Another problem is male-to-female talk, where an expression that would be clearly understood in a male-to-male interaction would be taken as an obscene comment when coming from a male to a female. This almost happened to me once when I was getting parts to install a new water heater. I was at Home Depot looking for the short pieces of pipe that connect an iron water heater tank to the copper plumbing. There was a young woman working in plumbing. I just caught myself before I asked her, "Do you have dielectric nipples?"

I recall a British actress in the US for a talk show appearance, who reported that the concierge acted oddly when she asked him, "Can you knock me up at seven tomorrow?" The expression in England is a request for a wake-up call (or knock on the door).

I thought about listing a few of the slang uses of formerly perfectly good words that we have lost to sexual references, but for the sake of good taste, I will refrain. Too bad we can't just invent new words and keep the good old ones for their innocent uses.

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