Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Mental Masturbation

Posted by Neal on August 10, 2012

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.

8 Responses to “Mental Masturbation”

  1. gacorley said

    I think I more often hear the term “intellectual masturbation”, which is a bit clearer. A few years ago some people in the conlanging community were using the term self-depricatingly to refer to the hobby, though it that case it’s less about talking about things as making up something highly complex and intellecual (in this case, a highly developed constructed language), for your own enjoyment and without much caring for other people’s opinions. I suppose that, self-deprecating humor aside, that sense would really apply best to private languages that only appear in someone’s journal, rather than some of the stuff people actually present online.

    • Neal said

      I’d forgotten about that way of phrasing it. Both terms get a single hit in COCA, and zero hits in COHA. Haven’t tried other searches yet.

  2. Way to turn a douchey comment into a humorous essay!

  3. I’ve definitely heard “mental masturbation” over the years to refer to someone “pleasuring themselves (and trying to impress others) with their display of intellect.” I *think* I heard it in at least one movie, though I can’t remember which one (Woody Allen a likely candidate).

    • Tom said

      That was in Annie Hall. Woody (Alvy Singer) encourages Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) to take some college courses, but then discovers her professor flirting with her. At that point, Alvy withdraws his support for higher education entirely. The script is quoted on IMDb:

      Alvy Singer: Oh stop it, you’re having an affair with your college professor, that jerk that teaches that incredible crap course, Contemporary Crisis in Western Man…
      Annie Hall: Existential Motifs in Russian Literature. You’re really close.
      Alvy Singer: What’s the difference? It’s all mental masturbation.
      Annie Hall: Oh, well, now we’re finally getting to a subject you know something about.
      Alvy Singer: Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.

  4. Nick said

    As for the origin of the phrase, it goes back at least as far as the early 19th century, since Lord Byron described the poetry of John Keats in an 1820 letter in the following terms: “such writing is a form of mental masturbation–frigging his imagination.” Trust a poet to come up with a colorful phrase.

  5. Scott said

    Thanks for the clarification. It cleared up a lot of issues. You see, I was recently accused of engaging in mental masturbation. Who knew?

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