Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Sedated but Arousable

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2004

I heard a well-known talk radio personality getting a big chuckle out of a quote regarding former president and well-known horndog Bill Clinton’s status after his heart surgery:

He’s sedated but arousable.

The host was so amused by that statement that you could hear him slapping his desk with glee as he went on about it. Finally he said, “I know what they meant. They meant rousable.” (Didn’t want people to think he was too literal-minded, after all.)

I looked in my 1973 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and I was surprised to find that the sexually related meaning, so prominent for the radio host as to be the only one, isn’t listed at all. A transitive and an intransitive “wake up” meaning are listed, and one for inducing someone to take action. The relevant meaning does show up in the online dictionaries I’ve checked, but the “wake up” definitions are still listed. But in the mental lexicons of at least one and probably many other speakers, the late-arriving “stimulate sexual desire in” definition is now the only one.

So it’s come to this. Now I have to add arouse to this list I’ve been keeping, of words that have been contaminated by their co-occurrence with sexual or sexually:

  • explicit
  • intercourse
  • molest

Just as you lose no information by omitting the male in male chauvinist, you can omit the sexual(ly) in sexually explicit, sexual intercourse, and sexually molest and convey (to many speakers, not including my dad) the same meaning as you would if you included it. The remaining word (the head of the phrase) has absorbed the meaning contributed by sexual(ly), leaving it superfluous. Harass seems to be going the same way. For some time, I’ve been wondering if these sexual compounds are more likely to have this happen to them more than other compounds, and if so, if it’s because of the taboo status of sexual. I don’t know.

I can think of some cases where it hasn’t happened, for example, sexual frustration. If your friend told you he was frustrated, you wouldn’t raise your eyebrows nearly as high as you would if he told you he’d molested, or even aroused, a sleeping kid. And there are enough other kinds of abuse that the sexual in sexual abuse is still necessary.

On the other hand, aside from male chauvinist, I can’t think of compound nouns or adjectives whose non-head word transfers its meaning to the head and then fades away.

BTW, I checked the other words in my list in the 1973 dictionary, and intercourse and molest each had listings for the sexual meanings. Explicit didn’t, but its sexual meaning is duly listed in So it’s another relative latecomer to the sexually contaminated wordlist.

7 Responses to “Sedated but Arousable”

  1. Anonymous said

    We mustn’t forget the characters involved. Regarding Clinton’s hospitalization, “head nurse” has an amusing “contaminated” meaning on par with (sexual) arousal. I think I’d prefer the female nurses wear sexy outfits to speed my recovery unless of course my ticker (not my pecker!) were on the verge of giving out!


  2. Anonymous said

    I remember reading an article about the inappropriateness of using the word niggard/niggardly because of it close soundingness to the generally offensive word nigger. A word has become tainted just because it sounds like an unrelated derogatory word! I think this is racial sensitivity run amok. Personally, I would rather be called a niggard than a cheap son of a bitch.


  3. Neal said

    Geoff Nunberg has an essay in his book “The Way We Talk Now” about ‘niggardly.’ He concluded with this thought: “The press had a high time … pointing out that ‘niggardly’ was an innocent word of Scandinavian origin…. Still, it’s a little disingenuous to pretend that you can pronounce a word like ‘niggardly’ now without evoking the echoes of its homonyms. Phonetics always trumps etymology. We all learned that when we were six, as we discovered what scatological pleasure there could be in pronouncing an innocent word like ‘shampoo.'” And, I might add, the screenwriters for “Meet the Parents” counted on this when they named Ben Stiller’s character Focker.

  4. Anonymous said

    “[…] if so, if it’s because of the taboo status of ‘sexual’.”

    Not the taboo status of “sexual” but the taboo (or titillating) status of sex itself; the concept, not the word, I would suggest.

    A similar process occurs with “fart”; the word is perfectly proper but its questionable status in certain company is due to the stigma of the act itself.

  5. Ingeborg S. Nordn said

    As long as people complain about other kinds of harassment (such as repeated phone calls or visits from an unwelcome person), I doubt that the word “harassment” will always have sexual overtones.

    By the way, the contamination of another word has inspired a “dirty-mind test” joke:

    Q. Name a four-letter word ending in “k” and meaning “intercourse”.

    A. “Talk”. [Never heard of social intercourse, have you?]

  6. […] Remembering passages like that one, and having written about taboo language here, here, here, and here, and having read too many Language Log postings on taboo language to try to provide links to, I was eager to read a piece of blog swag called Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge. I envisioned it as a powerful, book-length revelation of the pervasiveness of taboo in shaping language. Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that this book’s strength is in its breadth of types of taboo discussed, its coining of some possibly useful terms, and its overview of taboo language in the final chapter. However, problems in organization and style; omissions and shallow analyses; and general user-unfriendliness limit this book’s value as a just-for-fun linguistic read and as a reference. […]

  7. […] sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be […]

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