30 October 2007

Concerning Pleasurable Verbs

From Colin McGinn's review of Pinker's new book:

Of particular interest to the grammarian is the fact that in English all the impolite words for the sexual act are transitive verbs, while all the polite forms involve intransitive verbs: fuck, screw, hump, shag, bang versus have sex, make love, sleep together, go to bed, copulate. As Pinker astutely observes, the transitive sexual verbs, like other verbs in English, bluntly connote the nature of the motion involved in the reported action with an agent and a receiver of that motion, whereas the intransitive forms are discreetly silent about exactly how the engaged objects move in space. The physical forcefulness of the act is thus underlined in the transitive forms but not in the intransitive ones. None of this explains why some verbs for intercourse are offensive while others are not, but it's surely significant that different physical images are conjured up by the different sexual locutions—with fuck semantically and syntactically like stab and have sex like have lunch.
"Violate" is transitive, but I wouldn't have thought it was impolite. It's only usable to describe offensive sorts of sex acts, but that doesn't make the term impolite. If you want to speak about rape politely, "violated" is probably going to be a useful term. "Ravage" is also transitive, but strikes me as not so much obscene as ridiculous -- it seems to have a halo of cheap cologne. "Keep company" is transitive, yet is as innocent a euphemism as "sleep together". For that matter, "sleep with" is transitive, and if "sleep together" is inoffensive then "sleep with" wouldn't seem to be any worse.

In what way is "go to bed" silent about how the engaged couple moved in space? The bed is in space, and they went to it. It's silent about many interesting aspects of how they were moving, but then so is "fucked like rabbits". There are all sorts of movements that could involve. I have no idea what specific sorts of motions "fucked" is supposed to connote here; there are several candidates that come to mind, but it's hardly clearer than "slept with" would be.

In what way does "shag" underline "the physical forcefulness of the act" while "have sex" does not? I am not a Brit, and so I do not tend to use the term "shag", yet I know how to use it, and I know that it is generally offensive. Yet its relation to the "physical forcefulness" of sex is a mystery to me. It sounds like carpeting. "Have sex" brings the physical force to mind much more clearly, to my mind. Though I will happily grant that "shag" is a transitive verb. It takes a direct object. (Not "takes" in the sense in which "takes" is offensive, as in "He took her from behind." Did "It takes a direct object" underline the physical forcefulness of anything? If it did, I apologize; I didn't mean for my grammatical remark to be so rude.)

I suspect that the "physical images" McGinn conjures in the final sentence quoted may tell us more about McGinn than about English grammar. If I call to mind a physical image which "fits" the phrase "have sex", it does not much resemble a "physical image" of two people eating lunch. (Perhaps McGinn goes to a different class of restaurants than I do.) That McGinn thinks "fuck" and "stab" are similar qua "physical images" is something I would have preferred not to know; the parallels are clear enough if one looks for them, but it's kinda creepy that this is what came to McGinn's mind when he needed an example.

The whole review's a mess. I should probably read Pinker at some point, if only to see if he really is as bad as he'd appeared. Hopefully his jokes are as good as Zizek's.


J said...


(not so pleasurable, since it's misspelled. That's Concerning, S-Dan).

Steven Stinker! Phuck the Vichy phucks of Haw-vard, and IvyLeagueInc (or wannabe Ivy League schools such as Schweinford or the UCs). Even a Zizek has more heart. His reading of Kant (i.e. the 3rd Antinomy) is not the worst. Zizekism of course implies S-Dan converted into ....gulag-loaf! Alas.

Daniel said...

Typo corrected.

He actually runs through the first three antinomies in McGinn's review. Not surprised that he doesn't mention the fourth, whether there is a necessary being or if everything is contingent.

Duck said...

I have the book out of the library, but I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. McGinn's conclusion – that Pinker's use of "concept" is fatally vague – looks right so far. But McGinn himself is a piece of work. Have you seen his novel, A Space Trap? It has a decidedly weird sex scene that has to be read to be believed.

BTW as your example ("f***ed like rabbits") shows, the "rude" terms have intransitive uses too.

Ben Wolfson said...

"whereas the intransitive forms are discreetly silent about exactly how the engaged objects move in space. "

They coupled.

Currence said...

Even better than Wolfson's:

They hooked up.

Duck said...

Sorry, McGinn's novel is The Space Trap.

Daniel said...

Amazon knows of no Space Traps, either definitely or indefinitely specified. Can't seem to find a copy at the library, either.

I may never get to read mysterian sex scenes ;_;