Say What? A Consideration of Vulgar Etymology

On any given day, we all use words and expressions without necessarily knowing all of their connotations or their full origin stories. Unless you're a walking dictionary, you've probably used such turns of phrase in discordant contexts, or even made a full-blown faux pas, all unawares. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt--not everyone is as fascinated with etymology as I am. Not everyone consults Webster's a dozen times a day. But sometimes, it perplexes me that people don't get that curious tickle in the back of their brains when they throw around a word or phrase that's parroted rather than comprehensively adopted into their vocabulary.

So I'd like to address a few of the words and expressions that I hear bandied about, and suggest that this stuff would benefit from a more than superficial understanding, and a greater application of mind-to-mouth filtration.

Freud, with his favorite phallic symbol
The first is a word that gives me pause every time I hear it: anal, or anal-retentive. Literally referring to one's orifice of elimination, its cultural dimension stems from Freud's theories of infantile psycho-sexual development. Once you consider its origin, the term's use is prominently odd in most situations short of a proctologist convention. When people say "I'm just so anal," they may think they're saying "I'm detail-oriented, fastidious, and tidy." And to an extent, that would be true. But they're also saying "I have a sort of neurotic constipation." If nothing else, they're drawing attention to a body part seldom cited directly in polite conversation. And yet, it seems that Freud's cultural context has given many license to refer to their sphincters willy nilly in mixed company. So, unless you're sitting in a seminar on Freud, you might want to curtail the anal analogies. Especially when there are so many good alternatives that will make you sound like you aced your verbal SAT in the process: try "I'm fastidious" on for size.

In a similar category, the over-use of seminal and disseminate has got to go. Sure, it sounds impressive ("he's a seminal writer" or, more ironically, "she's a seminal artist"), but consider that the terms pertain to the distribution of semen--the spreading of "seed" for later development. Yes, disseminate literally means to distribute semen, making it a sort of metaphorical ejaculation. Sure, the human body and all of its functions are beautiful and worthy of celebration, but the problem lies in the patriarchal underpinnings of these terms. Applied to great cultural, social, or economic ideas, it carries the connotation that creative or intellectual capital is distributed as a phallocentric, explosive climax. Now, isn't it surprising that this term has persisted in critical as well as casual circles? For that matter, I've always found the Buffalo Seminary to be a particularly ironic name for a girls' school. Seminary may hold the centuries-old denotation of "school," but it's still part of the seminal circle of spermy words.

Some of the victims of Jonestown
This one is particularly egregious--a conversational train wreck in the making: to drink the Kool-Aid. Innocent expression referencing a popular powdered drink mix served at kids' birthday parties, right? Literally, yes. But historically, the metaphor is much darker; it references the Jonestown massacre, when more than 900 people in the "Jonestown" commune died by consuming grape-flavored drink laced with Valium and cyanide, coerced to commit mass suicide by cult leader Jim Jones. The deadly purple punch was actually Flavor Aid, but that detail has long been obscured by the better-known brand Kool-Aid (with its vaguely creepy anthropomorphized pitcher mascot). Originally, to drink the Kool-Aid was to share a communal cup of lethal refreshment, and hundreds of misguided men, women, and children died. Somehow, this shocking slaughter has worked its way into casual conversation, shorthand for irreversible indoctrination or zealous commitment to a cause. But I'd be willing to bet that a high percentage of people who throw the phrase around don't know--or don't care--that they're referencing the single largest loss of civilian American life prior to the events of September 11, 2001. Maybe it's a matter of degree. If you're talking about someone's bewildering or tragic adherence to a cause, the phrase may be apt. If you're talking about someone's slavish devotion to the latest series on Netflix, it's overkill.

I'm not trying to say that colorful vocabulary and lurid metaphor doesn't have its place, and in fact may be essential to the glorious mess that is the English language. I'm just trying to make the case for more judicial deployment of such idiomatic IEDs. The problem lies in the collective callousness that comes with over-use of certain words and phrases. As with any words or phrases on the continuum of profanity, their strategic application is watered-down with wanton use.

But maybe my anal fixation on the seminal effects of language means I've just drunk the Kool-Aid.



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