Last November, I blogged about the title of one of the books in Grammar Girl’s “101” series: 101 Words to Sound Smart. A commenter with the handle of Palavering2U wrote:
Why do many grammarians sound so full of themselves? I’m sure that you know your grammar, but most of the articles you offer are excercises in mental masterbation [sic].
I wasn’t sure what he meant by mental masturbation, but putting on my “Let’s tackle some non-literal language” hat, I concluded he must mean something like, “pontificating about things to no purpose but your own pleasure.” Urban Dictionary confirmed: Out of 14 user-submitted definitions, 11 agreed in essence with mine. Here are a few:
Intellectual activity that serves no practical purpose.
the act of engaging in intelligent and interesting conversation purely for the enjoyment of your own greatness and individuality. Subjects range from obscure lp’s to cultural movements in preindustrial societies. Either delivered through grand monlogues or subtle conversation orientation, it links large words and random references resulting in nothing acually being communicated.
The act of engaging in useless yet intellectually stimulating conversation, usually as an excuse to avoid taking constructive action in your life.
However, when I searched for the term in the Google Books archive, I learned that mental masturbation can refer to something much more insidious. Here’s a passage that according to Wikipedia is from Margaret Sanger’s What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1916, but according to Google Books is from Humanity; or, What every father, mother, boy and girl should know, by Louis L. Krauss, published in 1915:
In other words … sexual fantasizing? Here’s an entry from a year later, in Sex Knowledge for Women and Girls, by William Josephus Robinson:
This passage is also entertaining because of the retronym manual masturbation. Once you have electric guitars, wireless phones, and mental masturbation, you need to specify when you’re talking about what used to be the only kind of guitars, telephones, and masturbation. Etymologically, manual masturbation is funny, given that the word masturbate itself may ultimately come from the Latin root manus, too. It reminds me of the kind of situation I blogged about here.
Anyway, this next example is from 1919, in The Psychoanalytic Method, by Oskar Pfister and Charles Rockwell Payne:
I’ve found examples of this evidently common and accepted meaning for mental masturbation as late as 1950 through Google Books, but it’s definitely dormant now. Of the remaining three definitions from Urban Dictionary, two agree with the earlier meaning, but neither is well-liked by the readers. First, there’s
v. the act of masturbating with and only with your mind, totally not sexy
When I checked, this definition had 16 thumbs up, 73 thumbs down. Furthermore, I can’t tell whether the definition writer intended the definition seriously. The other concurring definition doesn’t actually define it, or even make much sense, but the sample dialogue using the term makes things clear enough. This definition writer is pretty clearly out for laughs, so it’s again hard to say whether the definition is to be taken seriously. It had 1 thumb up, 7 thumbs down.
This is usually announced or thought of after seeing a girl who is distractingly attractive. The act of explaining you like the looks of a girl enough to masturbate too.
See, she’s hot dude I’m going to ask her out.
Yea I’m masturbating in my head to her.
I’m still masturbating in my head to her. Still not done, not done, Alright I’m done. I’m going to go make a sandwich. Good Mental Masturbation. Actually, you want to go to Chipotle?
The earliest attestation I’ve found of the much more prevalant nonsexual modern meaning of mental masturbation is from 1921, in Transactions on the Section on Nervous and Mental Diseases, published by the American Medical Association. It occurs in an article about stuttering:
So both meanings have been in use for about as far back as I find the term in print, but there’s been a big shift in which meaning is prevalent. In any case, with both meanings still available to one extent or another, now it’s time to have some fun with the phrase and run it through the crossed-senses test (remember that from a few posts back?):
Lee and Kim both engage in mental masturbation.
What do you think? No, I don’t think it passes the crossed-senses test, either, but it was fun trying to make it pass.