Wednesday, June 28, 2006


A friend points out that the word "escort" is gradually replacing older terms for those offering professional sexual services. "Hooker, hustler, call girl/boy" are disappearing, at least in public notices. (There still seems to be some traditional use of the word escort, meaning "date," on American college campuses.)

"Escort" allows for plausible deniability, in case the authorities come nosing around. Yet as it gradually becomes the standard term, the advantage of deniability fades. There is also an economic factor, as escorts tend to cost more.

To some extent "model" has followed a similar trajectory, but the older usage may still be assumed in most cases. "Masseuse" and "masseur" apply to special circumstances.

It is usual to label such terms (understood in their sexual sense) as euphemisms. Yet this broad-gauged explanation fails to capture the semantic shift involved.

A distant parallel is the replacement of the word "lover" (standard in US gay circles twenty-five years ago) with "partner." This has several advantages, suggesting permanence and the recognition that most human relationships are not based exclusively on sex.

I notice that many young heterosexual couples now prefer "partner," even married ones. The advantage seems to be that the new term connotes equality. Seemingly tainted with patriarchal differentiation, "husband" and "wife" still convey a sense of assymmetry.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Humorous neologisms

While it is not strictly homolexical, the following (communicated by a fellow lexicographer) is of interest.

"The Washington Post's Style Invitational asked readers to take any word
from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one
letter, and supply a new definition. Here are this year's winners:

1. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright
ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows
little sign of breaking down in the near future. [Changing another letter would give Boozone, the confusion that results from too much alcohol. --WRD)

2. Foreploy (v): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of
getting laid.

3. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject
financially impotent for an indefinite period.

4. Giraffiti (n): Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

5. Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person
who doesn't get it.

6. Inoculatte (v): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

7. Hipatitis (n): Terminal coolness.

8. Osteopornosis (n): A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit. [But what does it mean?--WRD)

9. Karmageddon (n): It's like, when everybody is sending off all these
really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's
like, a serious bummer.

10. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming
only things that are good for you.

11. Glibido (v): All talk and no action.

12. Dopeler effect (n): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when
they come at you rapidly.

13. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've
accidental ly walked through a spider web.

14. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your
bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

15. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the
fruit you're eating.

And the pick of the lot:

16. Ignoranus (n): A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Rimbaud Code

The most famous poem of the French Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud is the Sonnet of the Vowels, probably written in 1871-72. He begins by positing a series of correspondences between vowels and colors-—A, black; E, white; I, red; U, green; and O, blue. It is commonly assumed that Rimbaud invented this procedure (with a little help from Charles Baudelaire). However, the parallels are part of a larger phenomenon called synaesthesia, the assumption that inputs in one sense correspond to specific ones in another sense.

The most common comparisons are between sounds and colors, hence color hearing or audition colorée. Ordinary language offers some support for this belief. Thus it seems reasonable to speak of the “scarlet sound of the trumpet” and the “silvery peal of the harp. Beyond such obvious connections it does not seem possible to go-—though it has been claimed that a few individuals have this capacity in a heightened and definitive form.

At any rate, as the Rimbaud scholar René Etiemble has shown the nineteenth century produced a number of texts comparing vowels to colors. The only problem is that there is no consistency in the identifications. Thus, an English text of 1821, which claims to derive its conclusions from the Roman poet Vergil, equates the latter A with white, just the opposite of Rimbaud's claim. The writer goes on to match E with blue, I with yellow, O with red, and U with black.

In fact Rimbaud admitted that he had chosen the colors according to his personal whim, or poetic license, if you will. This confession has not prevented scholars from seeking to detect a “Rimbaud code” in the painting.

In 1961 Robert Faurisson, a high-school teacher, created a great stir by claiming that the key to the sonnet is the anatomy of the female body during a sex encounter. In order to do this several of the letters need to be rotated. Thus is A is turned upside down, an image of the dark female pudenda appears. The letter E (which Rimbaud had written in the Greek manner, approximately like this: έ) must represent the milky white female breasts. If turned on its side, the letter I represents the red lips. And so forth. (The ingenious M. Faurisson later became a prominent Holocaust denier-—another, much more consequential triumph of interpretation over common sense.)

One contributor to the discussion, J.-P. Lepetre opined that Faurisson had got it all wrong. At the time of writing, through his celebrated liaison with Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was acquainted with the male anatomy, not the female. Lepetre offered a gay reading, which goes as follows. The A represents a bold, brawny Legionnaire, standing with legs wide apart. The curvilinear E must stand for his buttocks. The I (no need for rotation now) is his virile member. The U stands for the clasp around the characteristic cap of the Legionaires. Finally, the O mimics the wide-open mouth of the soldier in full battle cry.

To this I might add some observations on the letter U, which the French pronounce like the German ü. Claude Courouve has shown that during the eighteenth century, the French u sound stood for same-sex love (the reason being that it is the vowel in cul, buttocks). Some readers might also detect the initial of the word uraniste, but this did not appear in French until 1893. The culiste reading would be reinforced by Rimbaud’s possible knowledge that galbinus, a Latin word for pale green, was associated with homosexulaty. (He was an accomplished Latinist).

I conclude by noting some other erotic letters. The late sex researcher C. A. Tripp used to refer to homosexuality as H. When I pointed out to him that this letter stands for heterosexual as well he was unfazed. There is an Internet site called “Planet-Q.”

In the case of the current TV show, we have no trouble decoding the L-word is. The G-spot in the female anatomy takes its name from a German-American gynecologist, Ernst Gräfenberg.

(By the way, in the spell-check culiste appeared as “coolest.” Yes, indeed.)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Color: Further reflections

Public opinion surveys have cast light on the ranking of colors. Today, with ratings of 50% or more, blue is the unambiguous winner in all Western countries. Green, trending towards 20%, is second. However the preference for blue is not universal. Reportedly, Japanese prefer black. Moreover, blue did not always enjoy its present preeminence. As Michel Pastoureau has shown in his beautiful monograph on the hue, blue was largely disregarded in Greek and Roman times. The available technology was hard to reproduce. It also tended to have a negative reputation. (Not noted by Pastoureau is the finding that a light blue was the color of the angel of death for the Early Christians.) It was only in the high middle ages, when it became the color of the Virgin Mary, that blue began its ascent. The variability of the status of blue confirms the overall finding that the symbolic associations of colors are culturally determined.

In earlier decades gays and lesbians could dress in green or lavender in order to convey their orientation and to signal to others. Apart from these stratagems, what are the actual color preferences of gay people? As far as I know, no surveys have been conducted.

Color is a major factor in painting, helping to account for the popularity of museums. Moreover, unless there is some special reason for reverting to black and white, color is universally preferred in films and television. Computer printers, once limited to black, now generally provide the option of color.

Color has not always been so esteemed. During the Renaissance there was a debate over the status of disegno versus that of colore. (In the narrow sense, disegno means drawing, but it also connotes a broader awareness of structure and composition.) The upshot of the discussions was that color was legitimate, but must settle for lesser status. One Renaissance writer, though, associated color with painted women, with prostitutes. He was referring primarily to the use of make-up, but the comment potentially applies to dress as well, as whores have tended to wear bright clothing. So too, at times at least, gay men. “Don we now our gay apparel.” The Rainbow Flag may be another avatar of this polychrome tendency.

Chromophobia, aversion to color, became prominent in the Reformation, when Calvinists and Lutherans alike encouraged reliance on black as an emblem of sobriety. This hue was also the preference of austere Spanish grandees, as seen in the paintings of El Greco.

Hedonist courts, however, such as that of Henry VIII of England, kept to bright and varied colors. Thus colorful dress was for a long time associated with the aristocracy. It was only in relatively recent times that black became standard for male evening dress (the tuxedo). Perhaps the gay tendency to wear bright colors reflects a reversion to the earlier aristocratic preference.

Looking over the various colors associated with gay people in the segment reproduced below, one is struck by the fact that they are highly specific, making little contact with the overall symbolism of color. An exception is the red ties of a hundred years ago, a kind of voluntary parallel to the scarlet letter.

(Concluding note, don’t tell Islamists about the former gay preference for the color green.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Shortly, I expect, the texts for Homolexis will be archived. You may access them by looking in the May 2006 section of the archive. I regret this complication, but the method of posting that I have chosen is experimental. One day, I hope to make the contents more user-friendly.

After I have received more feedback, I will offer some reflections on this little field of homolexicography.