Monday, October 03, 2005

Is "Sucks" Now Acceptable?

I remember the "Bloom County" controversy in 1987, when the strip contained the line "Reagan sucks." My editor at the time was delighted and ran the strip as printed, justifying it with the explanation that it means, or could mean, "sucks eggs" rather than being a reference to fellatio. She got letters and subscription cancellations anyhow. I don't think she cared: She really, really thought Reagan sucked anyhow, however you interpret the verb.

That flap, repeated across the country in newsrooms which ran the then-enormously-popular strip, inspired this Dave Barry observation:

Totally true item: The Herald refuses to publish an episode of the comic strip "Bloom County" because it contains the quotation "Reagan sucks." To explain this decision, the Herald runs a story containing the quotation "Reagan sucks." Several days later, in response to a letter from an irate "Bloom County" fan, the Herald prints an explanatory note containing the quotation "Reagan sucks."

Since then, it seems, sucks has edged into the mainstream in such a way that the majority no longer regard it as offensive.

"The word sucks was an innocent word that developed a powerful and vulgar sexual connotation related to the taboo subject of fellatio," e-mails David Fertig, director of language programs at the University of Buffalo. "That connotation is now weakening for a couple of reasons.

"One is that young people today use other explicit terms for sexual acts, and many relate only vaguely to the sexual implications of the word 'sucks' that so offends their elders. As that vulgar connotation becomes weaker and weaker in people's minds, it is considered more acceptable for common usage."

Well, suck with the obscene slang meaning "do fellatio" is first recorded in 1928. The general slang sense of "be contemptible" is first attested 1971. Though the underlying notion is of fellatio, it is no longer explicit. (My editor's suck eggs is recorded from 1906.

Fellatio itself first turns up in late Victorian times, when some writers needed a formal word to describe the activity. It draws on Latin fellare, which literally meant "to suck," so the "sucking" sexual imagery was present at least that far back. And in fact fellare had an obscene secondary meaning in classical Latin, well-known to readers of Martial and Catullus. So Professor Fertig is not quite right in suggesting this is a recent perversion of an old word, though that may be strictly true in the case of suck.

Fellatio is the earliest way to refer to oral sex that I've discovered in English. Oral sex itself is first recorded 1948, in Kinsey.

Whether this means the medieval English didn't perform oral sex, or whether they simply had a word for it I am not aware of, I cannot say.

[If you're going to be strictly correct about it, by the way, the sexual partner performing fellatio is a fellator; if female, a fellatrice or fellatrix.]