"That's anal!"

Mon Oct 21 13:38:41 UTC 2002

I got the above utterance from a sophisticated young woman, Michelle, age
23, just graduated in political science from the Univ. of Toronto who was
being interviewed for an office assistant job. The provocation was my
mentioning casually that, in 1971, an assistant editor got fired from her
because, during  a dispute with her boss about the definition of "romance",
she walked out of his office
saying the boss's definition was "absurd."

Michelle remarked the firing was anal!

I added the editor would have kept her job if she had stayed
on to give the boss a chance at rebuttal, tried to learn how words are
defined for lexicographical as opposed to literary purposes, or used a less
hostile adjective like "ridiculous" -- a suggestion made by another editor
when she heard about the incident.

Since I wasn't familiar with this use of "anal," I asked Michelle if she
meant "anal retentive" or "anal expulsive." She was confused. I pressed on
and asked if she meant "anal retentive" as in "Some anal retentive copy-
editor wants me to use more commas," but that didn't seem to help either. Of
course, "anal" seems an accepted short form, especially in informal
situations. The average English user (call her "educated native speaker" if
you will) doesn't have to know the origins of words to be able to use them
idiomatically. And who wants to keep repeating "anal retentive" during an
intellectual discussion that has turned anal? (Incidentally, Michelle has
been hired on probation).

But the "anal" question remains, especially as in the utterance above. "That
anal" has 279 hits on Google.ca, compared to "This is anal" with 339! I
didn't even try "That's anal" because it is very difficult to determine from
Google whether the sentences with "anal" in it end at that word or go on to
illustrate other meanings as in "anal, vaginal, and oral sex." And when you
try to investigate these usages all you get is pure pornography.
Frustrating, isn't it.

Investigating "anal retentive" is more rewarding. There are 33,000 cases of
a-retentive, 360 a-expulsive, and voila! a new variant, a-compulsive. I
first saw this used by someone called Betty Bowers correcting no
less a person than Laura Bush. Please see below.  I predict that "anal
compulsive" is going to win out over the other variants in formal use
although perhaps "anal" will have the upper hand in informal use.

But what does "anal" really mean? The major desk
dictionaries say "anal (retentive)" adj. means (not exact quotes):
1. having to do with personality traits such as meticulousness, avarice, and
obstinacy (AHD)
2. having to do with personality traits such as parsimony, meticulousness,
ill humor: _anal disposition, anal neatness._ (M-W)
3. meticulous and exacting, not lax or uninhibited: _Some anal retentive
copy-editor wants me to use more commas._ (User's® Webster, 2002)
4. excessively orderly and fussy: _He's anal about things like that_ (Oxf.
Dict. of English, 1998; New Oxf. Amer. Dict., 2001).

All those personality traits, of course, are more negative than positive:
avarice, being exacting, ill humor, meticulousness, obstinacy, parsimony,
not being lax or uninhibited, etc. "Meticulousness" is the common thread in
the four definitions, but is meticulousness more negative than
positive? Some melioration of meaning, perhaps? Can "anal" in current
English be defined as "meticulous," with an illustrative example like
"Lexicographers by their very nature are anal"? Is that what young people
Michelle mean when they say "anal"?

And how is "anal" USED idiomatically? A dictionary is supposed to provide
formal definitions for everyday usages that call for an explanation, at
least to some of us. But it seems an impossible task. That's why this
lexicographer believes in eschewing formal definitions as much as possible
and supplying representative samples of speech and writing from which one
may gather the general sense for understanding as well as using the new
words that come into our consciousness.

Tom Paikeday


[HEADING] Laura Bush demonstrates how recent scientific advances have made
glass eyes undetectable

[TEXT] Laura Bush: I also like Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov."

Betty Bowers: I find its treatment of Jesus suspicious at best, dear, and
your attachment to it alarming. Speaking of shocking habits when it comes to
books, did you really Dewey-decimalize your entire private library, as I
read in the paper?

Laura: [capitals added] YES. SOME MAY FIND THAT A BIT ANAL -

ANAL. THAT'S ANAL-_COMPULSIVE,_ DEAR [end of added capitals]. There is a
difference. Let's talk hair, shall we? Hillary Clinton has had more
hairstyles than Alec Baldwin's back, but you seem to have stuck with a
decidedly 70's 'do.


Phrase Finder Home

Re: Anal Retentive - Origin

Posted by ESC on March 28, 2001 at 18:58:48:
In Reply to: Re: Anal Retentive - Origin posted by R. Berg on March 27, 2001
at 21:48:55:

: : : I believe the term refers to an infant who retains his/her excrement
for fear of soiling his/her diaper.

: : From memories of Psych 101 circa 1967:

: : Parents who are very strict with their children when it comes to toilet
training and who disapprove of soiling will produce an anal retentive
offspring. This offspring person will be very neat and concerned about order
and cleanliness. Any psych students out there to give more detail?

: I'm not a psych student, but I've copy-edited lots of writings in
psychology. In psychoanalytic theory, a cluster of traits grouped under the
anal-retentive heading, including compulsiveness and miserliness, is said to
result from conflicts experienced by a child at the stage when adults start
demanding that the poop be put in the potty.

: For a modified, updated, and intuition-friendly version of this theory, a
good book is "Childhood and Society" by Erik Erikson.

If I'd been harsh with my children regarding potty training, they would be
neat and orderly? So that's where I went wrong!

Does anyone remember the Saturday Night Live skit -- the Anal Retentive
Chef? He never completed a recipe because he was obsessive about cubing the
veggies just the right size, etc.

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