Jesse Sheidlower on Morning Edition

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Thu Mar 27 16:12:02 UTC 2008

This seems to imply that perception is what counts in etymology, which is 
obviously NOT what Jesse meant, whether we are talking about "sucks," 
"niggardly," or "pussy." The confusion is compounded by Steven Pinker's use of himself as 
an informant in the same article:

"When I was a kid and you said something sucks," says Pinker, "it was pretty 
clear what sexual act they were referring back to." But today kids have no 
idea. The term is just part of their common language.
 Perception Is Everything
 Frequent use, over time, has stripped away the original connotation. Pinker 
says the evolution of "sucks" is similar to that of "jerk" or "sucker."

As I pointed out a number of years ago in my DICTIONARIES article (2001; vol. 
22, 130-144), no one can say definitively what is the origin of "sucks" (in 
the sense of, say, "Pinker's intuition Sucks," which is a relatively new use in 
slang and seems to have largely replaced "stinks"). The language has many 
pejorative "suck" expressions that predate the suck = stink usage (e.g., 
"thumb-sucker," "suck the hind tit"). 

It is an interesting cultural/perceptual question why "Never give a sucker an 
even break," "sucker punch," "suck eggs," "suck wind," did not garner 
inferences of 'oral sex' whereas the suck =   stink usage did. 

I suggest that one reason is simply novelty: suck = stink was new, and people 
tend to think the worst about new usages--especially when they appear to be 
replacing perfectly functional expressions (i.e., "stinks").

 Another reason is that oral sex was becoming more acceptable as a topic of 
polite conversation in the 1960s and beyond: people didn't think about "Jim is 
such a sucker" in the context of fellatio because people just didn't even 
refer obliquely to such things in polite conversation.

Another reason is that people WERE beginning to insulting each other by 
saying such things as "You suck big donkey dicks!" (I don't think this is recorded 
very early in the literature of vulgar slang--if it is older than 1950, then 
it was not used so openly as in the 1970s). So the implications of oral sex 
could well HAVE been there for many speakers (e.g., Pinker) from the start.

In a message dated 3/27/08 10:23:17 AM, Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL writes

> Classification:  UNCLASSIFIED
> Caveats: NONE
> Props to Jesse explaining "suck" this morning on the radio -- nothing
> makes a bowl of Cheerios go down (sic) better.
> "Why Children Curse"
> Money quote:
> "  "There is an assumption that 'sucks' was a reference to oral sex,"
> explains Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English
> Dictionary. Some scholars debate this, but Sheidlower says perception is
> what matters.
> "Suck" may sound edgy or obnoxious to middle-aged ears, but parents may
> be at a loss to explain why it's a bad word, especially to an 8- or
> 9-year-old. "It brings up a conversation you might not want to have
> right now," says Sheidlower. "
> Classification:  UNCLASSIFIED
> Caveats: NONE
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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