Book Article

Digging for Dirty Words

Dictionary of dirty words -- "Sexual Slang" is a comprehensive glossary listing taboo phrases through the years

This is a dictionary with some 2,000 entries, running from abbess to zubrick — that is, from an 18th-century term for a madam to a 20th-century Australian term for male genitalia. To put it another way, if you're looking for today's dirty words in Sexual Slang, you're going to have to do a lot of reading.

''Of all human activities, sexuality is the source of the most slang,'' says author Alan Richter, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and who began the dictionary as a glossary of his 1987 treatise, The Language of Sexuality. ''Nothing comes near it.'' Richter — a former lexicographer and onetime United Kingdom Scrabble champion — estimates that around one in three English words has had some sexual connotation. ''You have male and female,'' he says, explaining the diversity. ''You have the activities, the personalities, the terms for prostitutes, for brothels, for red-light districts. It goes on and on.''

Because of the subject's powerful taboo, it has also lent itself to creativity. ''Sexuality is so vital and central to our life that we use other metaphors to explain it,'' Richter says. ''You'll find the food metaphor runs throughout: Sex is consuming, sex is an appetite.''

And the words themselves never stop changing. Some of the entries in this dictionary couldn't have been printed a century ago, while others that still can't be printed here were once considered standard, accepted usage. ''Meanings shift,'' says Richter. ''Slang is always an in-group term. But as a word loses its secretive nature, it loses its power.'' And in many cases the words just die out of the language entirely. Sard (copulate) used to be a very popular four-letter word back in the 10th century. ''English,'' says Richter, ''is an archaeologist's delight.''

Originally posted Feb 03, 1995 Published in issue #260 Feb 03, 1995 Order article reprints
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